Wedding Church and State

Editor's Note: This article is adapted from Susan Jacoby's forthcoming book, 'Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism' to be published in April by Metropolitan Books.

In 1773, the Rev. Isaac Backus, the most prominent Baptist minister in New England, observed that when "church and state are separate, the effects are happy, and they do not at all interfere with each other: but where they have been confounded together, no tongue nor pen can fully describe the mischiefs that have ensued."

If only that reverend manqué, President George W. Bush, had consulted the Reverend Backus' "An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty" before endorsing the mischief implicit in a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman and "prevent the meaning of marriage from being changed forever."

One of the most ironic aspects of the current assault on separation of church and state is that the apostles of religious correctness have managed to obscure the broad and tolerant origins of the godless Constitution, which was written and ratified by a coalition of Enlightenment rationalists and evangelical Christians equally fearful of entanglements between religion and government.

Like former President Jimmy Carter, a spiritual descendant of the dissenting 18th-century Baptists, the men of faith who helped frame the Constitution were confident enough of the strength of their religion that they did not feel obliged to enlist the aid of government to promote their personal beliefs. Carter, in a recent denunciation of a fundamentalist-inspired proposal to ban the word "evolution" from Georgia high school biology texts (why not add that to the federal Constitution too?), pointedly observed that "there is no need to teach that stars can fall out of the sky and land on a flat Earth in order to defend our religious faith."

What Bush and the Christian right want to do with the Federal Marriage Amendment is to defend their particular brand of religious faith. The amendment should not be considered merely an election-year "wedge issue," as Sen. John Kerry put it, or even primarily an attack on gay rights. The larger and more fundamental issue is that the amendment represents an all-out assault on separation of church and state.

In a perceptive letter to Congress, Americans United for Separation of Church and State pointed out that the change would violate the First Amendment's establishment clause by giving the government's "greatest imprimatur" to religions that prohibit gay marriage -- while relegating to second-class status those religions that recognize same-sex marriage.

Fear of precisely that kind of religion discrimination is what impelled dissident 18th-century evangelicals to support a secular constitution. Backus would no doubt have expelled a same-sex couple from his congregation -- or worse -- but he would not have enlisted the government to help him with what he saw as his religious duty.

Fortunately, American history provides hope that cooler heads will prevail over Bush's election-year mischief. In the 1960s, a drive for a constitutional amendment to overrule the Supreme Court and authorize school prayer lost steam after religious conservatives reacted with initial fury to the 1962 Engel v. Vitale decision. A similar fate awaited amendments to outlaw abortion in the 1970s.

During the Civil War, a group of prominent Protestant ministers proposed a constitutional amendment that would have completely undermined the republic's secular foundations by replacing "We, the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union... " with a preamble stating, "Recognizing Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, and acknowledging the Lord Jesus Christ as the Governor among the nations, His revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government... "

Abraham Lincoln, observing that "the work of amending the Constitution should never be done hastily," promised to "take such actions upon it as my responsibility to my Maker and our country demands." One of the canniest politicians ever to occupy the White House, Lincoln was in no mood to divide the country along religious lines during a war that had already pitted brother against brother. His action, and that of Congress, was to take no action at all.

One can only hope that today's lawmakers will heed the example of their political predecessors, both believers and secularists, who understood that religious interference with government is as pernicious as government interference with religion.

Susan Jacoby is director of the Center for Inquiry-Metro New York.

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