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A badly needed civics lesson for the Religious Right on the 4th of July

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Some days it seems that anyone calling for separation of church and state sounds like a voice in the wilderness; lonely and unheeded. This feels most dishearteningly true in the wake of Supreme Court decisions that have not only declared that corporations are people, but that some of them have religious rights that trump those of their employees. This sea change in Constitutional interpretation is due to the new conservative majority in the court; most of whom were selected by Republican administrations with an eye towards appeasing the Religious Right, the largest component of the partys increasingly influential far right wing. These are people with a very unique perspective on what the Constitution actually says; particularly in the First Amendment.

As the 4th of July has approached, I've been reading a lot of blogs that criticize the idea of "separation of church and state" by pointing out that those words appear nowhere in the US Constitution or Bill of Rights. Here's an example from one such blog:

The Leftist social liberals supported by the Godless ACLU continue to harangue on the "separation of church and state" as justification for eliminating religious issues from public view. The phrase "Separation of Church and State" has been bandied about for so long that many Americans believe that it is actually in the Constitution. In fact, those three words appear nowhere in the Constitution.

Oblivious to the irrelevance of their arguments, and at the same time refusing to acknowledge that no document of state, let alone the Constitution, has ever proposed such a concept, those on the Left have tried to convince the American people that our founding documents warned of the dangers of mixing politics and religion.

In the absence of Constitutional evidence, the mere opinion of private individuals or groups that there should be absolute separation of church and state hardly creates a 'great American principle'. They have thus misled millions and worked against the public interest by damaging the commitment to ethics and moral values that come only through religious belief.

As support for the idea that America is instead a Christian nation, they often quote the following line from the Declaration of Independence:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

It is, I think, sad that these theists never quote the next sentence of the Declaration of Independence when they quote the one containing “unalienable Rights.” It goes:

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed…”

Regardless of whom they attributed those rights to, the signers of the Declaration assign no further role to God in government. Even if that were not the case though, the Declaration of Independence is not the document that defined how the new country would be governed. That would be the job of the Constitution with it’s associated Bill of Rights. And God doesn’t get a government job in them either.

One of the other arguments these bloggers use is that when Thomas Jefferson used the term "separation of church and state" in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, the intention was only to reassure them that church would be protected from interference by the government. They then often say that that doesn't mean that the government needs protection from the church.

There's a little more to it than just protecting the church from government and it is not government that needs protection from the church. It’s the governed that need protection from them; from individuals and churches attempting to push their religious agendas through government. In other words, the wall of separation between church and state was erected in order to protect the freedom of conscience of each individual as well as each church.

It is also entirely beside the point that the phrase “separation of church and state” doesn’t appear in the Constitution or Bill of Rights. It doesn’t have to. Jefferson used the term to describe what the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment did. That’s also what James Madison, the guy who actually wrote the Establishment Clause, was doing when he used the same phrase a couple years after Jefferson. This was a great thing those founding fathers did for all of us. It gave everyone the same kind of protection from what Madison called “the tyranny of the majority” in matters of conscience. It provided a level playing field where all ideas on religion can compete freely for the hearts and minds of people. It is an idea in which the United States will forever be remembered as the first nation in history that enshrined this fundamental principle of human rights in law. It is worth celebrating on this 4th of July. It is also worth defending.

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