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Separation of church and state: the dividing line grows thinner.

THOMAS JEFFERSON once wrote: "I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." These words are carved into the base of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington. Most visitors to the monument believe he was referring to tyrants like King George III of England. However, Jefferson was writing about the Christian clergy.

As U.S. humorist and journalist Finley Peter Dunne's fictitious Irishman, Mr. Dooley, said of church and state: "Religion is a quare thing. Be itself it's all right. But sprinkle a little pollytiks into it and dinnymit is bran flour compared with it. Alone it prepares a man for a better life. Combined with pollytiks it hurries him to it."

Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter called Mr. Dooley a "great philosopher," and the renowned 19th-century liberal French statesman and political writer Alexis de Toqueville probably would have agreed. When Toqueville visited the U.S., he was intrigued by what he called "the spirit of liberty" and the "spirit of religion" in this country. He noted that, in Europe, where they were joined, government and religion were antagonists; in America, both blossomed because they were completely separate.

That appears to be the way most of the Founding Fathers wanted it. For example, there is almost no mention of religion in The Federalist, written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay to gain support for the new Constitution. Only Madison made a brief reference to religion when he noted that "a zeal for different opinions concerning religion" appeared to be one of civil society.

In 1794, Thomas Paine, the American Revolutionary War patriot, writer, and political theorist stated his position in The Age of Reason: "I do not believe in the creed professed by any church that I know of My own mind is my own church . . . all national institutions of churches . . . appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind and monopolize power and profit."

The American Revolution was influenced heavily by the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement of 18th-century Europe that was skeptical of traditional prejudices and beliefs, especially in regard to religion. Indeed, it was on the subject of religion that the influence of the Enlightenment caused the greatest commotion in the U.S. Many of the Founders had adopted the rationalistic concepts of the Enlightenment's European deists, who had rejected all the traditional beliefs of Christianity. These concepts reached America before the Revolution and were taken up by Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison, among others. George Washington declared that "The Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion."

Madison believed freedom of religion to be an inalienable right, and made this clear in Memorial and Remonstrance (1785): "The religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men."

Jefferson considered the fight for religious liberty to be the most important and difficult struggle of his life. Jefferson and others who believed as he did were not hostile to religion. However, they felt that centuries of church-state bonding had resulted in oppression and suffering. As Jefferson put it: "Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions."

Roger Williams, a clergyman and founder of Rhode Island, was perhaps the first to use the metaphor of "a wall of separation" between church and state: "When they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the state, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed His candlestick, and made His garden a wilderness."

Jefferson adopted Williams' "wall of separation" metaphor when he wrote: "I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and state."

The most memorable battle for churchstate separation erupted in Virginia, with both Jefferson and Madison there to wage it. In 1776, the Virginia legislature disestablished the Anglican church, but left open the possibility of a "general assessment," or tax for the support of religion. Jefferson, in "A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom" (1779), suggested instead that "no man shall be compelled to support any religious worship, place. or ministry whatsoever." The Statute for Religious Freedom that he proposed called for religious freedom and church-state separation.

Jefferson was Minister to France when the statute was passed. In a letter to Madison,he wrote:" It comfortable to see standard of reason at length erected, after so many ages during which the human mind has been held in vassalage by kings,priests and nobles; and it is honorable for us to have produced the first legislature who has had the courage to declare that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions." The statute became a model for other American states. Its principles entered the U.S. Constitution via the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights.

The struggle for the passage of the statute was not easy. In 1787, when the Framers prohibited all mention of God from the Constitution, they were accused of being immoral. Opponents of the so-called "godless" Constitution challenged ratifying conventions in almost every state.

Although the conservative Christian assault on the Constitution failed, the campaign to Christianize American politics continued. Attacks on "godless" politicians have occurred throughout the nation's history.

When Jefferson ran for the presidency in 1800, the wrathful conservative Christian clergy assailed their enemy. The constant attacks were so mean-spirited and vicious that he sequestered himself throughout the campaign at his Monticello home, finally to emerge as the U.S.'s third president.

In an 1822 letter, Madison warned that the danger of an "alliance or coalition between Government and Religion . . . cannot be too carefully guarded against." Nevertheless, contemporary religious conservatives have ignored his warning. As Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, has stated:

"What Christians have got to do is take back the country. I honestly believe that, in my lifetime, we will see a country once again governed by Christians and Christian values."

This country never was governed by Christianity. Nevertheless, in January, 1995, former Vice-Pres. Dan Quayle, at a training conference of religious right activists in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., stood at attention as a crowd of more than 2,000 rose, faced a flag with a cross on it, and, with hands on hearts, recited in unison this version of the Pledge of Allegiance: "I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag, and to the Saviour, for whose kingdom it stands, one Saviour, crucified, risen, and coming again for life and liberty, for all who believe." (Italics added.)

As Gloria Weber, a Lutheran pastor in St. Louis, noted in 1995: "Religious right groups are termed radical because their ultimate goal is to transform the United States into a theocracy. They seek to unite their version of Christianity with the government."

The various religious right groups scattered throughout the U.S. subscribe to a basic misunderstanding of the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." That clause does more than strengthen American democracy's freedom of religion, which the same Amendment separately protects, via the free exercise clause that follows. Given the great religious diversity in the U.S., the establishment clause depoliticizes religion and, so far, has defused what could be an explosive situation. The clause was put there intentionally to keep religious issues out of politics.

For the Framers, the integrity of religion and religious liberty depended on private conscience uncorrupted by government interference. As Articles of Faith, Articles of Peace, edited by James Davison Hunter and Os Guiness, explains: "The interpretation that insists upon religion as the necessary foundation of America's republican institutions cannot prevail. The Enlightenment, with its edge of skepticism, was too much present in the Revolution, in the key founders, in the mind of significant segments of the people--and, in effect, in the great silences and protections and negatives in the Constitution itself--for that to be persuasive."

The Reverend Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine and author of The Soul of Politics, notes: "One wonders if the religious right knows its history.... True evangelical faith focuses on the moral values that must be recovered to heal the torn political fabric; ideological faith would rend that fabric further in the pursuit of power."

The religious right today is a social movement that uses a devout, traditionalist constituency as the foundation to support its political goals. The movement seeks to force a limited theological agenda on secular, democratic society.

The November, 1994, elections marked the biggest victory ever for the Christian Coalition and similar groups. According to Rep. Vic Fazio (D.-Calif.), "Republicans are being forced to the fringes by the aggressive tactics of the religious right."

The religious right aims to reinvent the U.S. into a theocracy in which conservative Christian men will interpret God's will for everyone else and then turn their interpretations into national law. They dream of a hierarchy wherein the world must submit to the authority of those to whom they believe God has granted power--meaning, of course, themselves.

Jefferson had this to say about such dreams: "Millions of innocent men, women, and children since the introduction of Christianity have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned, yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools and the other half hypocrites."

As early as 1980, right-wing activists had organized evangelists into a group called the Religious Roundtable. When he was a presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan addressed the organization, telling them: "I want you to know that I endorse you and what you are doing." As president, Reagan supported the religious right rhetorically, but invariably wound up shelving their legislation.

After Pat Robertson unsuccessfully ran for president in 1988, he recycled his mailing list of 2,000,000 names and organizations into what became the Christian Coalition. Robertson now heads a vast, expanding commercial and religious empire based in Virginia Beach, Va., where he plays a major role in the work of the Coalition, situated in neighboring Chesapeake. In 1993, referring to the separation of church and state, he maintained that "There is no such thing in the Constitution."

The Christian Coalition runs seminars in which participants are trained to take control of local Republican organizations, from top to bottom. According to columnist Anthony Lewis: "Across the country [the Republican Party] in state after state . . . has moved sharply to the right.... It is not Ronald Reagan's conservatism, whose central theme was lower taxes and the free market. President Reagan talked about social issues--abortion, prayer, the family--but did little about them. For the new forces in the Party, they are the issues. No one knows what kind of legislation they would pass."

The 1992 Republican Platform concentrated on "family values," at the expense of traditional Republican preoccupations such as national security and the economy. It emphasized such matters as teaching adolescents how to say no to sex--this from a party that always has stood for the libertarian principle that government should stay out of the private lives of individuals. In a 1992 article, "The Born-Again Republicans," columnist Garry Wills pointed out that there "was another note that fit with the family-values theme--religion. As many reporters noted, God was the favorite delegate at that convention."

Once the new Republican majority in Congress was established following the 1994 elections, the religious right began to pressure for the adoption of moral issues. Specifically, they wanted Republicans to push their agenda restricting access to abortion, reducing Federal influence in education, and, most important for them, passing a constitutional amendment guaranteeing school prayer. Indeed, some sort of constitutional guarantee of student-led school prayer appears to top the list of almost every group of religious right-wingers. The demand for an amendment is featured in the Christian Coalition's Contract With the American Family, unveiled on Capitol Hill on May 17, 1995. It follows in title and form the House Republicans' Contract With America, introduced in the 1994 campaign as their political manifesto and supported by the Christian Coalition.

In response, American Civil Liberties Union executive director Ira Glasser told the press: "Religious expression in public schools is already protected by the First Amendment. Any child can pray or say grace on an individual basis. The Christian Coalition's real agenda is to impose its own religious beliefs and ceremonies on all students."

Some political analysts believe the Republicans' dance with the religious right is not in the party's best interests. Among the issues pushed on them by conservative religious groups, abortion long has split the party between moderate and conservative Republicans. This highly emotional, divisive issue has wreaked havoc in state and national races, resulting in bitter battles over the Republican Party's platform, which, since Reagan, has called for a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion. Bob Dole's efforts to get a "tolerance" plank into the 1996 platform is but the latest example.

If the Coalition is in a position to dictate to the Republican Party, it is because religious conservatives correctly claim credit for helping transform Congress in a conservative Republican direction. James Dobson, president of the religious right group, Focus on the Family, told The New York Times in May, 1995: "In November [1994] evangelists turned out in record numbers."

John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron and director of the Ray Bliss Institute, a political research center, told reporters: "It was the largest single voting bloc among religious groups." Green, an expert on voting patterns among such organizations, added: "It represents just about a third of the Republican vote."

The religious right's clout with Congress was apparent during the unveiling of the Contract With the American Family. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was there, as were Sen. Phil Gramm (R.-Tex.) and Majority Whip Trent Lott (R.-Miss.). The then-GOP presidential front-runner, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, a once-upon-a-time moderate, met with Reed and 40 state Christian Coalition leaders after the event and applauded the agenda.

Bitter arguments erupted in Congress on June 8, 1995, over the school prayer amendment. Laying the legislative groundwork, the Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution began hearings that rapidly disintegrated into heated exchanges between those on both sides of the issue.

"The decision of whether to have a prayer at some kind of school activity should properly be made by people that are involved in that activity, and not by a Federal Judge, nor by an A.C.L.U. attorney," stated Rep. Ernest Istook (R.-Okla.). Rep. Jose Serrano (D.N.Y.) quickly responded: "It's also the next civil war." Indicating that his South Bronx district included 125 ethnic groups, Serrano pushed Istook to explain how he would write up a constitutional amendment that would protect the rights of all religions, including no religion.

On July 12, 1995, Pres. Clinton proclaimed that the First Amendment does not "convert our schools into religion-free zones." He added that a memo would be sent to school districts throughout the nation stating what religious expression already is permitted. Clinton told a high-school audience in Virginia: "When the First Amendment is invoked as an obstacle to private expression of religion, it is being misused." (Italics added.) He remains opposed to any constitutional amendment to allow school prayer.

The legal argument dates back to 1962, when the Supreme Court determined in a New York case, Engel v. Vitale, that a law giving school officials the option to order school prayer was unconstitutional. In 1963, the Court struck down laws in Pennsylvania and Maryland that forced daily Bible readings and prayer in public schools.

Neither ruling declared prayer in public schools unconstitutional. Rather, the Court struck down only government-mandated or coerced prayer and Bible readings. Voluntary, individual student prayers are legal in public schools and are protected by the Constitution.

More recent decisions perhaps have weakened the wall. On June 29, 1995, the Supreme Court allowed for greater governmental financial support for religious organizations, ruling five-to-four that the University of Virginia was required constitutionally to finance a student religious magazine on the same basis as any other publication. A companion ruling stated that Ohio had restricted the free speech rights of the Ku Klux Klan by refusing to allow it to erect a cross in a public park near the state capital, even though other groups were permitted to erect signs and demonstrate in the area. In a third decision on the same day, the Court let stand a ruling against the Ladue School District in St. Louis that it could not forbid a religious group to meet after school unless it also prevented other groups, such as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, from meeting after classes.

Neutrality toward religion is not the same as bearing ill will toward it, as much as the current judicial climate would seem to miss the distinction. Believing that religious teachings belong at home and in houses of worship is not the same as believing they are wrong. As the late Sen. Sam Ervin (D.-N.C.) said: "When religion controls government, political liberty dies; when government controls religion, religious liberty perishes."

Ms. Braffman-Miller is a free-lance journalist whose articles have appeared in Consumer Reports, The Humanist, Ms., Science Digest, New York, and USA Today.
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Author:Braffman-Miller, Judith
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Nov 1, 1996
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