The Fundamentalist Attack on Separation of Church and State Defames America and Its Founders

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Mr. Wasserman is senior editor and columnist for www.freepress.org. He is author of Harvey Wasserman's History of the United States and A Glimpse of the Big Light: Losing Parents, Finding Spirit, both at www.harveywasserman.com. He has co-edited, with Bob Fitrakis and Steve Rosenfeld,Did George W. Bush Steal America's 2004 Election: Essential Documents (www.freepress.org). He holds a master's degree in US History from the University of Chicago and has taught at a number of colleges. Mr. Wasserman also helped found the grassroots anti-nuclear/pro-solar energy movement, and is co-author, with Dan Juhl, of Harvesting Wind Energy As A Cash Group: The Guide to Community-Owned Wind Power (www.danmar.us). He is senior advisor to Greenpeace USA and the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, and has founded Farmers Green Power to promote renewable energy development.

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The right-wing's multi-front war on American democracy now aims at our core belief in separation of church and state. It includes an attempt to say the founding fathers endorsed the idea that this is a "Christian nation," with an official religion.

But the founders---and a vast majority of Americans---repeatedly, vehemently and with stunning clarity denounced, rejected and despised such beliefs.

Nowhere in the Constitution they wrote does the word "Christian" or the name of Christ appear. The very first phrase of the First Amendment demands that "Congress shall make no law concerning an establishment of religion."

One major reason Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Tom Paine, Ethan Allen and the vast majority of early Americans rejected the merger of church and state was the lingering stench of Puritan intolerance. The infamous theocratic murders of the Salem witch trials sickened the American soul, just as today's power grab by Karl Rove's new corporate fundamentalists creates an atmosphere of intolerance and fear, defined by the world's largest prison gulag.

With characteristic duplicity, the radical right is attempting to re-write another of this nation's most cherished beliefs. Consider a widely circulated screed by the University of Dayton's Larry Schweikart. With astonishing inaccuracy, Schweikart asserts that Jefferson's famous demand for a "wall of separation between church and state" doesn't really mean what it says. Jefferson's observation that the founding fathers were not particularly devout is also dismissed, as if Schweikart knew them all and Jefferson didn't.

Twisting metaphors, changing meanings and ignoring Jefferson's Unitarianism, Schweikart conjures a completely fictitious endorsement for a Christian state.

Then comes the astonishing assertion that the incomparably urbane, tolerant and ever-eclectic Benjamin Franklin was somehow a Christian soldier. Never mind that in his Autobiography the Puritan-born Franklin, with his usual wry wit, laments having been dragged by a friend to church, from which he fled back to his books and experiments.

Never mind also that the legendary atheism of the wildly popular Tom Paine and Ethan Allen was embraced throughout a new nation that loved rational reason.

Instead, the Rovewellian claim that the US belongs to Puritan fundamentalists and their corporate sponsors is fed with random shreds deliberately misused as if by divine right.

The Deistic God of Franklin, Jefferson, and their Enlightened cohorts was in fact a humanistic divinity, rooted in the possibilities of the mind and spirit. America's true founding faith drew strength from diverse sources, including native America, pacifist Quakerism and the actual teachings of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount: broad, peace-loving, tolerant, egalitarian, pluralistic, loving.

In other words, the precise opposite of G. W. Bush's totalitarian jihad. Today's theocratic crusaders promote the mean spirit of Puritan fanatics who ruled Boston from 1630 with an iron fist and a hangman's noose. To claim that this infamously repressive (and repressed!) state church was somehow supported by its most focused opponents is to defame America's founders and Truth itself.

It is not the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments that form the bedrock of American values. It is the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution. If anything should be chiseled in stone on our public buildings, it's the Bill of Rights.

Which is precisely what this attack on our history means to burn at the stake. Awakened America rose up in revolt against King, corporation and clergy. Its rejection of a state-sponsored church, Christian or otherwise, was fiercely explicit and decidedly mainstream.

Today's corporate-funded fundamentalist jihad is at war with America's uniquely diverse revolutionary soul. Spitting in the face of our historic core, the Big Lie of a "Christian nation" is vintage Rove at his most Orwellian.

America's founding genius lit up the world with secular pluralism. Those who attack our uniquely open spirit with phony scholarship are those whom George W. Bush might most accurately describe as "people who hate America."

This article was first published by the Free Press: http://www.freepress.org/index2.php.

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John Chapman - 7/1/2005

"You want tolerance? Show some." After you.

Frederick Thomas - 6/30/2005

Mr. Chapman:

Thank you for your comments. My response:

1. You say: ”The separation debate is mostly about history concerning the role of religion in public life. Separationists believe the founders wanted to separate church and state by depriving the state of its power to aid or hinder religion. Then you had the accomodationists who believed that the state retains that power (with certain limitations).”

- These terms (“accomodationists”, “separationists”) are only from the “Committee for the Separation of Church and State”, and its clones, so I guess we know where you are coming from.

- The term “Separation of Church and State” is an expression popularized by Montesquieu (d1755) and is often, with his other radical beliefs, blamed for the homicidal course of the French Revolution, which consumed his descendants and eventually hundreds of thousands of other Europeans, if one includes Napoleon’s wars. The french suffered badly for not having a Hume or Hutcheson to teach them real tolerance.

- “Separation of Church and State” was mentioned by Jefferson ONLY ONCE in a letter to Connecticut Baptists who felt oppressed by Congregationalists, in which Jefferson, while sympathetic, argued that the Feds had NO right to intervene in a State’s decisions on establishment. Whoops! No wonder it is always quoted out of context by “separationists!”

- Jefferson’s response was part of a major (losing) counterattack against the Federalists, regarding the Separation of Powers doctrine, in which he claimed that the Feds had power only to regulate foreign relations, and nothing else. His ideas had failed in the Constitutional debate, but he continued this debate until his death.

- This “separation” is a core belief? For whom? How does it give the ACLU the right to sue little towns when they put up Christmas trees or teach comparative religion? Do you know what Jefferson would have done? He argued in fact that the Feds have no right.

2. You say: “Show me where it says "religious liberty" is a constitutional principle? That phrase is not in the Constitution but it is implied just like "separation of church and state" is implied.”

-The constitution explicitly states that “…Congress shall make no law ... prohibiting the free exercise (of religion.). There is no “implication” in this. Sounds like freedom of religion to me (and everyone else.) Radical “Separation” is what you claim is implicit, since it appears nowhere, not even by clear implication. Clear enough?

We could go further with this, but I suggest that you dig into the history more deeply, become more tolerant and open, and lose the anti-“free expression” bias.

By the way, the sneering innuendoes "you seem to be rabidly intolerant of," "your own tortuous rant" are particularly ineffective and convince of nothing more than that you do not command the facts and have no real argument. You want tolerance? Show some.

John Chapman - 6/30/2005

"Mr. Wasserman, there is absolutely NO "separation of church and state" in our constitution…"

You’re correct but this is completely irrelevant as Mr. Wasserman probably knows. Show me where it says "religious liberty" is a constitutional principle? That phrase is not in the Constitution but it is implied just like "separation of church and state" is implied.

The separation debate is mostly about history concerning the role of religion in public life. Separationists believe the founders wanted to separate church and state by depriving the state of its power to aid or hinder religion. Then you had the accomodationists who believed that the state retains that power (with certain limitations).

Accomodationists, which is what you seem to be, drag out reams of quotations from famous early Americans to prove that religion is important to public life, or that the founders were religious men. Many of these quotes, like yours, are fabricated or taken out of context. Your long post is mostly irrelevant to what's at issue in the separation debate. A person can be religious, believe that religion is important for public life without having to believe that the state should have the power to aid religion whether by preference or non-preference.

Thus having missed the thrust of Wasserman’s argument, which you seem to be rabidly intolerant of, you hastily launched into your own tortuous rant, exactly what you accused him of, argumentation and controversy. But, of course, you have every right to give your sermon too.

Frederick Thomas - 6/28/2005

Mr. Wasserman:

From a read of your article and perusal of your other titles, it is clear that you are a polemicist, not an historian, which is fine, except that polemicists add nothing.

Your misstatements regarding the period of the enlightenment and religion legalities are so outre’ that I hope I can point out a few of the basic facts for you, to wit:

1. “The right-wing's multi-front war on American democracy now aims at our core belief in separation of church and state. It includes an attempt to say the founding fathers endorsed the idea that this is a "Christian nation," with an official religion.”

- Mr. Wasserman, there is absolutely NO “separation of church and state” in our constitution. Our constitution expressly prevents what you want, ie “(laws) preventing the free exercise (of religion)” ARE PROHIBITED. I believe you must be aware of this, yet you profess that there is government prohibition of free religious practice here.

- The Constitution says that Congress “shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion…” In other words, it prohibits one religion from dominating as during the English Civil War. It does NOT say what you allege, ie that every state reference to religion is prohibited, to the contrary, any religious practice is protected.

- There is NO “core belief” here in “separation of church and state”. Indeed, by actions and words, the founding fathers made religion and God a part of every governmental proceeding, and almost every document. They asserted “under God”, “by our creator”, etc. constantly.

- Even the half-religion of Free Masonry, followed by Washington and Franklin, was involved. Take out your wallet and look at the back of any US banknote. Check the pyramid. Religions are an integral part of our founding.

- Despite your fear-mongering, there are no right wing bogeymen trying to convert you from your beloved nihilistic atheism.

2. “Schweikart conjures a completely fictitious endorsement for a Christian state.”

- Do you know who he is, Wasserman?(sic) He is a respected PhD in history at the U of Dayton, who apparently got so tired of reading leftist trash disguised as history texts that he wrote a book called “A Patriot's History of the United States” with Dr. Allen.

- He got Penguin -no less- to publish it and it has excellent early prospects, which must gall you terribly.

- You apparently object to any mention of the “great awakening” or any other religious event which had a great impact upon our history, and you are so terrified of free speech that you can speak in nothing but vilifications in response to his ideas.

3. “Instead, the Rovewellian claim that the US belongs to Puritan fundamentalists … is fed with random shreds deliberately misused as if by divine right.” “G. W. Bush's totalitarian jihad.” “Spitting in the face of our historic core, the Big Lie of a "Christian nation" is vintage Rove at his most Orwellian.”

- Is this raving supposed to be English, or drivel?

- Sir, I defy you to find any statement by Rove, Bush or any other whose religious beliefs you wildly defame as seeking to re-establish “Puritanism”, as it once was in Massachusetts. Let’s face it, bubba, Puritanism was dead long before the Revolution. Find even one citation sir. Just ONE.

- For that matter why don’t you identify one practicing Puritan anywhere-just ONE.

- Sir, you flirt with being a Christian-basher, and a profoundly close-minded bigot.

4. The Enlightenment was a result of over 200 years of (unique) universal public education in Scotland. As the only European country to have it universally, Scotland was uniquely able to lead the others, particularly given the access to English, Colonial, and Continental markets which funded it following the 1707 act of union.

-The people who took this fountain of ideas to its height also created the philosophical basis for our country and constitution. Most were religious, and also the finest of their day as scholars. Voltaire, Kant, Descartes, Locke and many others identified Scotland’s enlightenment of the source and guide of their own. Voltaire said "…we look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilization".

-The best example is Frances Hutcheson, President of the Universities of Glasgow and later Edinburgh. He was so a devout Presbyterian, a Calvinist sect, (like the Puritans,) which would apparently require his execution under your concept.

-He influenced many of our founding fathers, including Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, in many disciplines including Philosophy, Literature, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. More important, he was the teacher through which the ideas of Adam Smith and David Hume, his former students, were impressed upon the men who would write the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

-His “Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue” (1726) was, contrary to your supposition, the foundation for modern liberal democracy. It was elaborated by Hume and Smith, and has been described as follows:

(From “How the Scots Invented the Modern World”, part 1)

QUOTE: “The motto of the Shaftesburys was “love, serve.” Kindness, compassion, self-restraint, and a sense of humor, were the final fruits of a polished culture. Shaftesbury also explained where the highest and most
sophisticated polite cultures came from….liberty.

For Hutcheson the highest form of happiness was making others happy.

…Hutcheson wanted to turn his fellow clergymen away from the hard, inflexible dogmas of John Knox and refocus their energies on the moral questions the parishioners faced very day. The pulpit was not a place to inspire fear and terror, but to uplift and inspire. Church should be the school of men’s consciences and a place to cultivate a disinterested benevolence and affection for our fellowmen.” UNQUOTE.

Do you see where Jefferson got “the pursuit of happiness,” as opposed to Locke’s “life, liberty, and property?”

This magnificent humanitarian, the closest one can find to a “Puritan” among the Philosophical antecedents to our founding fathers, introduced the whole idea of toleration and civility which democracy requires to survive, and is condemned by you categorically.

By the way sir, the closest of our founding fathers to real Puritanism was John Adams. Would you like a piece of him? He may have been the most ardent Christian, as well.

I ask you, as Frances Hutcheson asked, to leave harsh ignorant recriminations behind, and join our democracy as a contributing member as he would have wished you to.

Nathaniel Brian Bates - 6/28/2005

I do not agree with the Fundamentalists and the secularists who both want the Federal Government to regulate on a religious basis because the Founding Fathers supposedly agreed with their views. The Founders had no authority to over-ride the States, and the States were diverse (as were the Founders). Fourteenth Amendment Incorporation is a factor here, but it restricts infringements on civil rights more than it regulates what can or cannot be on a Courthouse. There is no Constitutional basis for any branch of the Federal Government to regulate religion.

I do not want the ACLU or Pat Robertson to define who is or who is not an American based on their narrow prejudices and their projections as to what the Founding Fathers believed. Let local communities decide what to put on Courthouses. That means that idolatrous symbols will be placed on Courthouses, including goddess symbols and the Crosses so beloved of the religious right. However, those seem to be OK anyway. Only Hebrew Biblical symbols such as the Ten Commandments seem to be off limits.

Gordon Bond - 6/28/2005

This is true. But I think that the point of an "historical argument" is that these guys knew the potential dangers of the government favoring one religion over others. They knew this from firsthand experience - regardless of what their personal faiths might have been.

The concept of the separation of church and state as we understand it today seems to have been more of an evolutionary process that is rooted in the principle established by the founders. That makes it vulnerable to interpretation that isn't entirely true to the original intent (at least as far as we can know it).


Gordon Bond - 6/28/2005

Parker did indeed die before events could have forced him to choose a side (pity!). But Livingston's stand on King's College, while vicious at times, was grounded in a common dislike of the Anglican minority (who also were often times the wealthy) having too much power - the small but powerful elite. This was a pitfall of what amounted to a state religion (though they didn't use that phrase yet).


Lisa Kazmier - 6/27/2005

The Anglican thing makes sense, given that would be the Church of England and you would be talking about colonial positions, an extension of Britain (and England). Parker died before anything changed in that regard.

James Stanley Kabala - 6/27/2005

The truth is a lot more complicated than either Schweickart or Wasserman is willing to concede.
One outright error in the piece: Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen both believed in God, albeit a Deist God, and far from being "embraced," Paine's outspoken anti-Christianity made him something of a pariah.
Also, the Founders were most decidedly not "Quaker pacifists." Because of their pacifism, most Friends were neutral or even hostile toward the Revolution.

Gordon Bond - 6/27/2005

I've been researching a biography of the 18th century printer, James Parker (1714-1770), who did a lot of printing for William Livington and his "Triumvirate" during New York's Kings College controversy.

The impression that I got from reading about this period of our history was that we did have a "state religion" of sorts. While other faiths were tollerated, if you wanted to hold public office or have any real position of power and influence, you needed to be Anglican. Despite being in the minority, they held a disproportionate amount of power.

What Livingston and others like him were really fighting for, though they didn't necessarily fully know it, was a separation of church and state.

What muddies things is that I don't know that the founders of the country could really accept a completely secular state totally devoid of the guiding moral compass they saw religion as providing. Even Franklin saw religion as a form of "crowd control" in that it gave the great unwashed masses a touchstone for moral standards.

Nevertheless, their understanding of the social dangers posed by a state religion allowed them to try and guard against it in their grand experiment. This has evolved into a separation of church and state as the best means of achieving the general goal of religious freedom. Many miss that subtle but important aspect today and just assume that they had to have been devout men.

I have heard people using the "historical argument" to justify their agendas and I was glad to see Mr. Wasserman's essay!


Stephen Francis Kislock III - 6/26/2005

Mr. Schweikart/Ann Coulter,

The blant disregard for the Truth is astounding.

The History of the United States of America, contains one Document, that plainly set the path of American to a Secular Government.

The Tripoli Treaty of Friendship, May 27,1797. Atricle 11 is the telling point. "The United states is Not a Christian Country".

Our Country, the United States of America is secular and not Christian...

Robert A Jones - 6/24/2005

This article reminds me of this bumper sticker I just saw: