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There is a revisionist strain of teaching in modern day American fundamentalism, furthered by frauds like David Barton, that the Wall of Separation is largely a myth. It was not, as the fiction goes, religion that the founders wanted equally protected -- and separate from government -- but Christianity and its various sects; and, rather than "separate", they were to merely live in harmony. The founders were all Christian, and, seeing the conflict between denominations, wanted to create a paradise for and by, and exclusive to, Christians. This paradise would not promote one denomination above the other, but it would be a Christian land, a theocratic paradise that would certainly impose religion on its citizens. But rather than promoting Presbyterianism in one area, say, and Methodism in another, and Catholicism in yet another, it would promote a generic (but always, in practice, far right) Christianity. Alas for the fundamentalists, this is a poorly constructed lie that any honest examination of history will easily demolish: the wall of separation of church and state was clearly and fully intended to keep all religions, including Christianity, out of government, and to protect all faiths, not merely Christianity's many incarnations, equally.

It must be stated from the outset, for it is often presented as a contradictory concept, that we do not suggest that the founders were irreligious or that they refrained from practicing their faiths. They were a largely religious body (although there were a fair share of deists and doubters in their ranks as well), and wise religious men at that – wise enough to understand the difficulty inherent in promotion of one faith over others.

Having seen both locally and overseas, in their present day as well as throughout history, the impact of theocratic tyranny, the founding fathers went to great lengths to protect against such a state of affairs manifesting in their country. Jefferson, drafter of the Statue of Virginia for Religious Freedom, had witnessed in Virginia, and long railed against, the practice of promoting one sect of one religion over all others. His efforts in promoting religious freedom in that state were not merely to protect individual sects, however, but everyone, regardless of their religious belief (or lack thereof). This is made clear in, among other places, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVII.

The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
Jefferson's vision of religious liberty extended not merely to the man whose belief in Jesus was somewhat different than his neighbor's, but to the man who had no belief in Jesus at all. The principle was the same, regardless of what deities (or none at all) were involved. And rather than being troubled that freedom of religion might allow too much dissent, Jefferson believed this freedom would separate real truths from pretenders, that free inquiry would bolster truth, rather than harm it. 

Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error. Give a loose to them, they will support the true religion, by bringing every false one to their tribunal, to the test of their investigation.
This is, then, the mindset of the man who wrote the powerful lines:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, 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 & State.
The use of language is important. Jefferson didn’t just say “God”, or “our God”, as he might of if he meant to narrow the field merely to believers in his deity of choice, or if he merely took it for granted (as revisionists pretend) that freedom of religion was only a Christian right. He specifically states that it is a matter between a person and “his” -- the individual’s -- god, and not any other. It is absolutely not a matter for the government, as it is an opinion and not an action. And then, most powerfully, he defines a barrier between Church and State. Not a protective wall to shelter one religion from state. A wall. And not a wall around one, a defensive line, but a wall between, a divider. In context of Jefferson’s words and writings, this is very clear: Jefferson did not intend that to be a wall that sheltered Christianity and allowed Christians to inject religion into politics, but a dividing wall, a separating wall.

"But, the early government employed chaplains!" the revisionist will declare. "They prayed. So, checkmate!" As with most of these claims, the revisionist draws wholly unwarranted and unsupported meaning from simple fact (when there is any fact involved at all). Meaning, more often than not, that they wind up with an interpretation that is entirely at odds with reality. From the first, there was concern among the founders as to what sort of interpretation might be taken from the fact that they prayed to their own god (concern well founded, as is evidenced by the fact that this discussion is even now ongoing). Madison, for instance, detested the notion of legislative chaplains. He declared that “[t]he establishment of the chaplainship to Cong[res]s is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles” because 

The Constitution of the U. S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes. Does not this involve the principle of a national establishment, applicable to a provision for a religious worship for the Constituent as well as of the representative Body, approved by the majority, and conducted by Ministers of religion paid by the entire nation.
Madison also felt that military chaplains were unconstitutional. (Imagine the reaction from theocratically minded Christians of our current day if a contemporary politician were to advocate such a course of action -- and bear in mind, as you contemplate such a thing, the hysteria that ensued from, for example, the Air Force's decision to stop forcing cadets to pledge to a god they might not believe in, when they rendered the phrase "so help me God" optional).

But Jefferson took matters even further, beyond objecting to the governmental employment of persons in a strictly religious function, to refusing to even hold religious thanksgivings and fasts for fear that they would be perceived as having “some authority”. Adams regretted having recommended a national fast, saying that he feared it foreshadowed “seeds of an ecclesiastical history of US for a century to come”. He also noted at the time that the public spirit was so set against Presbyterians that the people would have preferred “philosphers, Deists, or even atheists, rather than a Presbyterian President.” Madison rejected public funds for religious charities multiple times, believing that a precedent “for giving to religious Societies” should not be set. Other founders did the same.

Furthermore, like Jefferson and the 20-god-worshipping polytheist, or atheist, whose rights to free belief he supported, George Washington declared to Jewish Americans (in his 1790 letter to the Touro Synagogue) that the US “requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens”, and that “[i]t is no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the free exercise of their inherent natural rights.” Not that the nation "requires only that you acknowledge the Father and Son of my religion, or at least bow to their dictates". Not that they should delight that "the benevolence of the Christian majority, and its government by and for Christians, leaves the worshipers of Touro Synagogue unmolested." No indeed: the congregation of Touro, and all people, enjoyed free exercise of natural rights that no one could infringe upon; and all that was required, rather than bowing to the "right" deity or submitting to the majority faith, was that Americans conduct themselves as good citizens.

In a letter to New Church in Baltimore, Washington expounded on this notion: “In this enlightened Age and in this Land of equal liberty it is our boast, that a man’s religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of the Laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining and holding the highest Offices that are known in the United States.” He further felt no qualms in recognizing the religious beliefs of others, as in his 1796 address to the Cherokee Nation: “I now send my best wishes to the Cherokees, and pray the Great Spirit to preserve them.”

In short, our founding fathers and early presidents not only embraced a wall of separation between religion (including Christianity) and state, but envisioned a far more solid thing than the patched and leaking barrier that today remains. Contrary to revisionist claims that this wall is a new and radical invention, it is in fact as old as our country, and a far more (dare I say, too?) lenient wall than that which was originally established. The founding fathers had studied history's religious tyrants, and dealt with plenty from their own day; they saw what modern day would-be theocrats are either too blind to see or too foolish to understand: that the wall of separation is the only effectual assurance of true religious freedom, and as important for the majority as the minority. 

The above is a collaborative guest post, with my sister, Sarah. In its original form, it was her response to a FB discussion about religion in politics. Sarah was specifically answering an individual who cited as fact a highly misleading opinion piece that attempted to peddle the revisionist narrative that the wall of separation between church and state was merely to insulate Christians against pesky interference by those distasteful "others": a shield against the state interfering with religion, and a weapon to Christianize the heathen through politic machinery. Seeing what a very good response it was, I asked her if we could rework it for a blog post. What follows is the result of that work. 

Originally posted at Rachel's Hobbit Hole.

Originally posted to Rachels Hobbit Hole (on Daily Kos) on Wed Jun 11, 2014 at 05:13 PM PDT.

Also republished by Progressive Atheists.

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Comment Preferences

  •  All anyone hs to do (16+ / 0-)

    Is study religion in Europe, and specifically England 1450-1690, to see how terrible state involvement with religion made the lives of the citizenry. I don't see a reality in which they thought it was a good idea for the state to sponsor any faith over another. Modern conservative writers spewing this nonsense talk as if Quakers and Puritans in 1600 England were considered both denominations of one Christianity. They were not. Quakers were considered at best massively wayward, and often possessed by the Devil.

    by DAISHI on Wed Jun 11, 2014 at 05:26:08 PM PDT

  •  Separation of Church and State... (8+ / 0-)

    ... is essential to religious freedom. But the people who want them merged oppose religious freedom. They object to the diversity of religion in America, and want the long arm of the law enforcing their religion. Except it might not always be their religion in power.

    The wolfpack eats venison. The lone wolf eats mice.

    by A Citizen on Wed Jun 11, 2014 at 06:53:07 PM PDT

  •  An excellent post (6+ / 0-)

    and a very detailed and well researched essay.  

    I still don't understand why so many Americans don't see the similarities between a theocratic America and a theocratic Iran or Syria, or even France or Britain, in their not too distant pasts, for that matter. Everyone should be acutely aware of the story of the trial of Samuel Pepys for a horrifying lesson in the danger of theocrats out of control.

    'Tis with our judgments as our watches, none go just alike, yet each believes his own. - Alexander Pope

    by liberaldad2 on Wed Jun 11, 2014 at 10:07:35 PM PDT

  •  Well done. (6+ / 0-)

    Hope you encourage your sister Sarah to post here, Rachel191.

    When I consider my children's and grandchildren's future, the thing I am most afraid of is that the "Wall" will come completely down, leading to tyranny by Christian Dominionists.

  •  I totally feel the same about what you said. Th... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Rogneid, allie4fairness

    I totally feel the same about what you said. The Dominionist movement scares me a lot. We can see it coming out in the open more every day. I've had to argue too many times with family members and strangers about my right to be free from their religious beliefs. It's like beating my head into a wall...ugh! I'm happy for people who have found a religion they're into, but do not try to force your beliefs onto anyone else (please know I'm not lumping my irritation towards true Christians). I've tried different religions/churches in the past and studied different religions. I find none of that is for me. I'd prefer to see agnostics, atheists, pagans, wiccans, etc. working in elected positions instead of fundies and other Christian extremists. I'm tired of hearing those who don't believe in separation of church and state saying they're not able to practice their beliefs and are being persecuted against. The majority of the time, the truth is the complete opposite of that. There is way too much religion being put into laws in this country and it needs to stop.

    Thank you for this great diary, Rachel191.

  •  Good diary. Well written. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Rogneid, allie4fairness

    I usually point to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia as the pivotal venue to illustrate the intentions of the founders when it came to religion.  They had AMPLE opportunities to create that "Christian Nation" that David Barton basically lies about.. and they didn't. The response to Ben Franklin's suggestion that since they were at loggerheads over Constitutional points they might want to ask for divine help in the form of a prayer led by outside clergy was met with skepticism and silence. Franklin wrote in the margins of his copy of his speech, "The Convention, except for three or four persons, felt prayer unnecessary."  A delegate named Luther Martin from MD quit the convention mostly over concerns about a powerful federal government, but he had also proposed giving a nod to Christianity in the preamble that went down in flames.  He remarked when he got home that "God was out of favor with that group".

    When I raise these issues in op-eds that I write in newspapers, there is inevitably a letter in response that uses David Barton crap to counter me.  But even Barton has trouble explaining the Constitutional Convention, although he made a stab at claiming that just the suggestion of prayer changed the atmosphere in the convention, so it MUST have been God intervening there!

    What is amazing to me is that Justice Kennedy referred to Madison's Essay on Monopolies where he discussed chaplains, and seemed to totally skip over that part when ruling in the Greece NY case.  He's not the first Justice to bend historical facts to his will in order to justify a view, Rehnquist was notorious for using Barton and other historical revisionists in his opinions.

    It's a never ending battle, but it sure would help if our current President stopped siding with the theocrats. He has been just awful on separation of church/state.

  •  Good points well put. (0+ / 0-)

    Separation of church and state is a bedrock principle of our Constitution, much like the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. In the first place, the Supreme Court has thoughtfully, authoritatively, and repeatedly decided as much; it is long since established law.  In the second place, the Court is right.  In the Constitution, the founders did not simply say in so many words that there should be separation of powers and checks and balances; rather, they actually separated the powers of government among three branches and established checks and balances. Similarly, they did not merely say there should be separation of church and state; rather, they actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of "We the people" (not a deity), (2) according that government limited, enumerated powers, (3) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (4) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (5), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office.  Given the norms of the day (by which governments generally were grounded in some appeal to god(s)), the founders' avoidance of any expression in the Constitution suggesting that the government is somehow based on any religious belief was quite a remarkable and plainly intentional choice.  They later buttressed this separation of government and religion with the First Amendment, which affirmatively constrains the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions.

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