Any religious group that needs the government to sponsor its religious worship is a feckless flock. Had I been a member of any of the participating groups, I would have been ashamed. Our founders came to this country to get away from the government’s interference in religion. If a religion requires government sponsorship to give it meaning, its God must be the most impotent God ever imagined by the human mind.
All of my adult life–over 45 years–I have supported the right of all our citizens to the freedom of religion. I have supported the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses to follow their religious dictates and refuse to salute the flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance. To have this right accepted by the government has required that the government be sued on behalf of the children held up to ridicule and derision for following their parents’ beliefs.
On the other hand, I have opposed providing government resources to religious groups for their use in practicing their religions. In the 1940s, some laws allowed school districts to release students during the school day for religious instruction provided by religious leaders in public school classrooms. These laws were challenged in Champagne, Illinois, by a mother, Vashti McCollum, on behalf of her son, who was beaten up so regularly over his mother’s religious beliefs that his parents moved him to private school, providing evidence that there are Christian goons among us. In the McCollum case, the Supreme Court recognized that there is enormous pressure on children to conform to expected norms, i.e., participate in the religious education programs offered through a public school. When that social pressure is combined with government “influence by the school in matters sacred to conscience and outside the school’s domain,” the result is a force too great to allow schools to become “embroiled” in religious teaching that proselytizes.
Justice Hugo Black, who wrote the opinion in the 1948 McCollum case, concluded, “Separation means separation, not something less. Jefferson’s metaphor in describing the relation between Church and State speaks of a ‘wall of separation,’ not of a fine line easily overstepped…. It is the Court’s duty to enforce this principle in its full integrity.”
In the 1950s, many school districts tried to force children to pray, and the children of dissenters were beaten as often as the McCollums’ son a decade and more before. Further, some schools tried to compel students to participate in Bible reading. Thanks to the efforts of civil liberties groups representing aggrieved parents, the government was ordered by the Supreme Court to cease such compulsory religious activities.
While many religious leaders and pious parents were deeply offended by these rulings, at least one devout minister was not. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., remarked that it would be nice if the school day across America could begin with a reading of the Bill of Rights. “After all, he said, “we Negroes know our Bible. We don’t need to have it read to us in school.” It is shameful that all Christians do not have such a profound understanding of the Constitution and an appreciation of the role played by each of our institutions–government and religious.
My own background helped me understand the distinction made by Rev. King. When I was in kindergarten and first grade, I attended a private school because my birthday fell not long after the September 1 date for admission to public school. My parents chose to send me to a parochial school (Lutheran) for my second and third grade years. Each day there, I was required to memorize a Bible verse, a practice acceptable to my parents and one that I dutifully fulfilled. But when I entered public school in the fourth grade, those religious activities ceased, except (coincidentally) I had to learn a new section of the Pledge of Allegiance for reasons I did not understand. Frequently, I forgot to say “under God” as the class recited the Pledge each morning, but eventually I learned the words of the new insertion.
As a child, I mostly did what I was told, so I thought nothing of the two new words added to the Pledge. They meant nothing to me. Later, as an adult, I realized what a propagandistic bit of political skullduggery the Congress and the President had foisted on us. By requiring school children to make a religious statement in a secular, patriotic pledge, politicians had succeeded in appealing politically to religious Americans who saw nothing wrong with the government promoting religion. At about the same time, at the behest of the leading Christian Evangelist of that era, Billy Graham, the National Day of Prayer was begun by act of Congress. Both the official prayer day and the “under God” insertion in the Pledge were driven by the McCarthyism of the era and a desire to distinguish the US from the atheistic Soviets.
By the time the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) decided that it should challenge the political sacrilege of a National Day of Prayer called by the government, the right-wing Christian evangelical group Focus on the Family had virtually taken over this government-sponsored day of worship, preventing Mormons, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Hindus, and some other non-Christian religious groups from participating in this activity of government.
Now we are told by many Christians that this country is a Christian nation. Apparently, that means they believe that our system of governance is wedded in some way to Christianity, so the country founded on freedom of religion for all its people is now bound to serve Christianity by sponsoring Christian worship and encouraging obeisance to its doctrines. What a long way we have come in 234 years. We have gone from a founding based on escaping government-sponsored religion to government sponsorship of religion.
Of course, those political souls who want to impose government sponsorship of religion on all of us are delighted. Sarah Palin finds it “mind-boggling” for anyone to suggest that we are anything but a Christian nation. The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in response to Palin that “It’s incredibly hypocritical that Sarah Palin, who disapproves of government involvement in just about anything, now suddenly wants the government to help people be religious. It is wildly inconsistent with her views on limited government to get the government involved in matters of faith.”
Palin continually tries to convince us that our founders were all like-minded about religion, but nothing could be further from the truth. Paul Fidalgo, the communications manager for the Secular Coalition for America, responded to Palin’s simplistic and politically self-serving view of our founders by saying, “While the founders’ views on religion varied from person to person, there is no doubt that they believed strongly that religion had no place in government. John Adams signed the Treaty of Tripoli which stated in no uncertain terms that ‘the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.’ Our Constitution established a secular government and has no mention of Jesus, Christianity, or a god of any kind, despite the false message spread by figures such as Sarah Palin who claim that America was founded as a Christian nation.”
To combat such palpable nonsense by Palin, and other national, state, and local politicians, the FFRF has produced a YouTube video– “To Christian right: You’re wrong about American history,” and FFRF is sponsoring advertisements that help set the record straight about the religious views of our founders: President John Adams is quoted (from the Treaty of Tripoli, 1797), “The United States government is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.” Thomas Jefferson – “Question with boldness even the existence of a God.” James Madison – “Religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.” Thomas Paine is quoted, “My country is the world, and my religion is to do good.” And a more recent president is included: John F. Kennedy is quoted (from a speech he gave in Houston in 1960, while campaigning for the presidency) saying, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”
In the 1947 Supreme Court case Everson v. Board of Education, Justice Black wrote on behalf of the Court, “The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable.” The government sponsorship of religious (mostly Christian) worship has breached that wall. It is a wall we need far more than the one erected and being erected on our southern border. A constitutional scholar like President Barack Obama should be able to understand that.
© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. HankinsEmail | Print