by Larry Page, Executive Director, Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council – June 16, 2011
I am alarmed at how some of our fellow citizens are so willing to see fundamental rights curtailed by courts. I suspect a big part of the problem is a lack of knowledge about the U.S. Constitution and the rights enumerated there. The phrase, “wall of separation between church and state,” is not to be found in the first amendment to the constitution. It was first used by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 in a letter he wrote to Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut, who were concerned about misuse of the first amendment. Jefferson told them that the wall was to protect the church from the government.
The real threat that those who crafted the religious provisions of the first amendment wanted to avoid was that of an official national church or denomination. In no way did they seek a secular society; one in which people of faith could not openly and freely exercise their faith.
The climate for people of faith, particularly for Christians, has changed dramatically. No longer is the government tolerant of Christians who choose to practice their faith in the public square. We believers are expected to be tolerant of people who embrace other faiths or no faith at all – and we are – but others, including the courts, are often intolerant of us.
A Historical Perspective
The first use of the “wall of separation” phrase in conjunction with using the first amendment to challenge and possibly limit religious expression and practice occurred in 1947. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, an Alabama Democrat and former member of the Ku Klux Klan inserted the phrase in a decision he authored for the court, Everson v. Board of Education. There he said, “The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.”
For the last sixty-plus years, some courts have adopted Black’s overly-restrictive interpretation of the first amendment, turning it 180 degrees from what the founders intended. It has led to the kind of abuses by courts that the Texas federal judge exhibited in declaring that a student could not utter anything that had the slightest religious significance. A student in her valedictory remarks to her fellow students at a graduation ceremony mentioning God, praying in Jesus’ name, or asking for God to bless America, her state, the other students, etc. is not tantamount to state sanctioned or mandated religious practice. It would be nothing more than an individual engaging in the “free exercise of religion” – a fundamental right guaranteed by the first amendment – at least guaranteed until 1947 when some courts embarked on the quest to secularize America.
Consider just a few facts that illustrate the founders did not intend that the first amendment be hostile to religion. The first act of the first Congress was to appoint chaplains. Each session of Congress and each session of the U.S. Supreme Court begins with prayer. The Ten Commandments hang over the head of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in the court’s chambers. The phrase “In God We Trust” is stamped on our coins. The words “under God” are part of the pledge of allegiance. On the walls of the capitol dome in Washington, D.C. are inscribed these words, “The New Testament according to the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” The figure of the crucified Christ is in the rotunda of the national capitol. Presidents conclude their oath of office with their left hand on an open Bible, saying “So help me God.”
Is the above an exhaustive list? Hardly; it is not even a small fraction of the evidence we could sight for the fact that America never was intended by the patriots who founded her to be a secular, Godless society.
The bare, unvarnished truth is this: America’s evolution was steeped in Judeo-Christian principles. The French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville discovered just how significant Christianity was to America when he visited the country in the 1830’s to observe the people and their institutions. He wrote, “. . . there is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America.” [Emphasis added]
William O. Douglas, arguably the most liberal, secular-minded justice to ever sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, stated in the 1952 court decision Zorach v. Clauson: “The First Amendment, however, does not say that in every and all respects there shall be a separation of Church and State . . . . We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being . . . When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities . . . it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people . . . . We find no constitutional requirement which makes it necessary for government to be hostile to religion . . . .” [Emphasis added]
What Real Tolerance Looks Like
What I wrote last week was not hyperbole, not demagoguery, not meant to be a scare tactic, and not intended to whip people into a frenzy. It was meant to be a wake up call.
The fact that our nation’s heritage is Christian does not mean that everyone is compelled to convert to Christianity or suffer the consequences for failure to do so. Neither does it mean that those who embrace other faiths or no faith at all are second-class citizens who are afforded less rights and protections than others. What it does mean is that if I attend a graduation ceremony here, I may hear a student mention God or Jesus or talk about how faith has helped shape his or her character. No one need be offended by that.
If I were in Saudi Arabia attending a graduation ceremony, I would probably hear someone pray to Allah. I would not be offended by that. That is their heritage there. What should I expect? And why should I resent hearing a prayer mentioning Allah?
In fact, if in a graduation ceremony here the student-speaker was Muslim and mentioned Allah in her comments or in a prayer; I wouldn’t need to take offense at that. If I did, I would be exhibiting rank hypocrisy. She would simply be exercising the same rights we all have – the rights to free speech and the freedom of religion. I wouldn’t have to be pleased by hearing what she said or join with her in her expression of faith in order to respect her right to say it. Neither would I have to conclude that the school officials were officially sanctioning, mandating, or even approving her comments. I would just need to respect her personhood and the rights that her personhood and God grant her. In short, I would need to practice simple tolerance — shouldn’t everyone, including those of other faiths, those who hold no faith — and even federal judges?
Tolerance — it really should be a two-way street. If we are indifferent and fail to champion tolerance, we and our children and grandchildren will find it increasingly more difficult to be purveyors of the “good news.”