Bad History: What the Right Says About the Constitution
Facts to Help You Set the Record Straight
Americans United for Separation of Church and State
Silver Spring, Maryland
Far Right groups often make false claims about constitutional history in an effort to "prove" that separation of church and state was not intended by the nation's founders or that the United States was founded to be a "Christian nation." This article refutes these claims and others made by the Far Right.
Far Right groups frequently argue that separation of church and state is a myth or that the concept was not intended by the nation's founders. Several different Far Right groups spread this view, including Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, James Dobson's Focus on the Family, The Rutherford Institute and TV preacher D. James Kennedy.
Much misinformation about the history behind separation of church and state may be traced to David Barton, a Texas-based propagandist who attacks separation of church and state in books and videos. Barton's materials contain numerous errors, distortions and half truths. His book The Myth of Separation, although heavily footnoted, is riddled with factual errors. Nevertheless, Barton's revisionist history is appearing with increasing frequency in Far Right circles and is leaching into the
secular media by right-wing activists who write letters to the editor and op-ed columns regurgitating Barton's bad history.
It is important, therefore, that pro-separation activists learn to respond to some of the Far Right's common distortions about separation of church and state. The following list of myths and facts was prepared by Americans United for Separation of Church and State with help from the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. It is by no means exhaustive but touches on some of the Far Right's most common claims. For help in responding to specific Far Right assertions not covered here, please feel free to contact the author.
MYTH: Separation of church and state is not in the U.S. Constitution. It is true that the literal phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear in the Constitution, but that does not mean the concept isn't there. The First Amendment says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...."
What does that mean? A little history is helpful: In an 1802 letter to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptist Association, the-president Thomas Jefferson declared that the American people through the First Amendment had erected a "wall of separation between church and state," echoing religious freedom advocate Roger Williams who a century earlier alluded to the "hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world."
James Madison, considered to be the Father of the Constitution and author of the First Amendment, said in an 1819 letter, "[T]he number, the industry and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church and state." In an earlier, undated essay (probably early 1800s), Madison wrote, "Strongly guarded...is the separation between religion and government in the Constitution of the United States."
As eminent church-state scholar Leo Pfeffer notes in his book, Church, State and Freedom, "It is true, of course, that the phrase 'separation of church and state' does not appear in the Constitution. But it was inevitable that some convenient term should come into existence to verbalize a principle so clearly and widely held by the American people....[T]he right to a fair trial is generally accepted to be a constitutional principle; yet the term 'fair trial' is not found in the Constitution. To bring the point even closer home, who would deny that 'religious liberty' is a constitutional principle? Yet that phrase too is
not in the Constitution. The universal acceptance which all these terms, including 'separation of church and state,' have received in America would seem to confirm rather than disparage their reality as basic American democratic principles."
MYTH: Thomas Jefferson's 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists was a mere courtesy and should not be regarded as important. Far Right activists have tried for decades to make light of Jefferson's "wall of separation" response to the Danbury Baptists, attempting to dismiss it as a hastily written note designed to win the favor of a political constituency. But a glance at the history surrounding the letter shows they are simply wrong.
Jefferson clearly saw the letter as an opportunity to make a major pronouncement on church and state. Before sending the missive, Jefferson had it reviewed by Levi Lincoln, his attorney general. Jefferson told Lincoln he viewed the response as a way of "sowing useful truths and principles among the people, which might germinate and become rooted among their political tenets."
MYTH: The Danbury Baptists wrote to Jefferson because they were worried that a national religion was about to be established. Not true. The Danbury Baptists wrote to Jefferson because they were tired of being treated like second-class citizens in Connecticut and being forced to pay church taxes. The Baptists knew of Jefferson's views in favor of religious freedom for all and wrote to tell him that they hoped his views would be adopted throughout the country.
MYTH: Thomas Jefferson later said his "wall of separation" was meant to be one-directional and designed to keep "Christian principles" in government. This statement is a complete fabrication and appears nowhere in Jefferson's writings; he never said it. Jefferson's writings indicate beyond a doubt that he believed separation would protect both church and state. If anything, most scholars believe Jefferson was more concerned about the church harming the state than the other way around.
MYTH: The United States was founded as a Christian nation. Most of the first Europeans to arrive on our shores were religious dissenters who sought religous freedom, and many believed they were establishing some type of Christian utopia. But many supported religious liberty only for themselves, and some of the early colonies were theocracies where only those who worshipped according to state orthodoxy were welcome. All but four colonies had some form of an established church.
Following the American Revolution, political leaders began to construct the new U.S. government. Although a minority clung to European notions of church- state union, a general consensus emerged that the new country should steer clear of officially established religion. States with government-supported religions also began moving toward separation. Massachusetts, the last state to maintain an official religion, disestablished its state church in 1833.
During the Constitutional Convention, a minority faction favored some recognition of Christianity in the Constitution, but their views were overruled. Many framers had seen the dangers of church-state union in Europe and in the colonies; they wanted no part of such a system for the federal government. Thus, the Constitution does not mention God, Jesus Christ or Christianity. In fact, the only reference to religion is in Article VI, where the founders provided that there could be no religious test for public office.
MYTH: The Supreme Court has declared that the United States is a Christian nation. In the Supreme Court's 1892 Holy Trinity Church v. United States decision Justice David Brewer wrote that "this is a Christian nation." Brewer's statement occurred in dicta, a legal term meaning writing that reflects a judge's personal opinion, not an official court pronouncement that sets legally binding precedent. From the context of the quote, it is clear that Brewer only intended to acknowledge that Christianity has always been a dominant force in American life.
Brewer clarified his views in a book he published on the "Christian nation" concept in 1905. In the volume, Brewer argues that the United States is "Christian" only in the sense that many of its traditions are rooted in Christianity and rejects the notion that the nation's laws should be based on Christianity.
MYTH: The First Amendment's religion clauses were intended only to prevent the establishment of a national church. If all the framers wanted to do was ban a national church, they had plenty of opportunities to state exactly that in the First Amendment. In fact, an early draft of the First Amendment read in part, "The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief, nor shall any national religion be established...." This draft was rejected as too weak. The historical record shows clearly that the framers wanted to ban "multiple establishments," that is, a system by which the government funds or supports many religions on an equal basis.
Far Right groups are aggressively spreading myths like this and deceiving many well-meaning people with their anti-church and state separation propaganda. Activists who support the separation principle must respond promptly to these myths every time they appear.
NOTE: This article is a condensed version of a piece that originally appeared in Church & State, March 1992, Vol. 45, No. 3.
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