Susan Jacoby

The ungodly Constitution: How the Founding Fathers ensured America would not be a Christian nation

When I was growing up in the fifties and sixties, almost no one in politics or everyday life went around proclaiming, “I am a Christian.” If indeed you were a Christian—that is, someone who considers Jesus Christ the Messiah—you identified yourself as a Lutheran, a Methodist, a Baptist, a Catholic, and so on in excelsis in order to let others know where you stood in the vast American religious landscape.

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The Ungodly Constitution: How the Founders Ensured America Would Not Be a Christian Nation

When I was growing up in the fifties and sixties, almost no one in politics or everyday life went around proclaiming, “I am a Christian.” If indeed you were a Christian—that is, someone who considers Jesus Christ the Messiah—you identified yourself as a Lutheran, a Methodist, a Baptist, a Catholic, and so on in excelsis in order to let others know where you stood in the vast American religious landscape.

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It's The Judges, Stupid

The intellectual, legal and political composition of the federal judiciary is the most important issue at stake in the 2004 presidential election, because the next president will have the power to create many new judges in his own image and thus place his stamp on every aspect of public policy for the next three decades.

Any doubt about the crucial nature of the stakes should have been erased by last week's 7-2 Supreme Court decision Locke v. Davey. The court rejected an absurd and radical assault on separation of church and state by refusing to require the state of Washington to pay for the college training of ministers. The Bush administration had filed an amicus curiae brief arguing that Washington should be forced to extend its college scholarship program to ministers-in-training.

In an opinion all the more significant because it was written by the conservative Chief Justice William H. Renquist, the court noted that from "the founding of our country, there have been popular uprisings against procuring taxpayer funds to support church leaders, which was one of the hallmarks of `established' religions."

The 79-year-old Renquist's conservatism is, paradoxically, the very reason why Democratic candidates should be seizing on the judiciary as an issue. Progressives have generally worried about who President George W. Bush will appoint to replace 83-year-old John Paul Stevens--the most consistently liberal justice on the high court--when he retires.

There is ample reason for concern, in that Bush's father, the 41st president, appointed Clarence Thomas to the seat occupied until 1991 by the towering figure of Thurgood Marshall. What is even scarier, though, is the likelihood that Bush would replace Renquist (who will likely retire within four years) with someone much more conservative, more rigid and certainly more prone to religious fanaticism.

There is one obvious candidate already on the court--Antonin Scalia, buddy of Dick Cheney and a healthy ultra-conservative, still in his 60s, who has argued that the death penalty should be upheld because God has the power of life and death, government derives its power from God; ergo, government also has the right to kill.

And Scalia's seat might be taken by, say, Charles Pickering, whose anti-civil rights record is so stellar that Bush bypassed the Senate confirmation process during the Christmas congressional recess and made an interim executive appointment (hoping that a more conservative Senate might confirm him for real after the next election).

One thing is certain: unlike his more moderate Republican predecessors, Bush will not make the mistake of appointing ideologically unreliable judges like Stevens (appointed by Gerald Ford), Sandra Day O'Connor (Reagan's choice) and David Souter (Bush's father's mistake).

Right-wing Republicans don't hesitate to attack liberal judges, as Bush did when he denounced "activist judges" while endorsing a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. But Democrats have generally regarded the judiciary as a non-sexy nonstarter of an issue.

Their view is understandable, in view of Americans' widespread ignorance of the constitutional machinery of their government. According to polls conducted by the National Constitution Center, 40 percent don't even know that there are three branches of government. More teenagers could name Larry, Curly and Moe as the Three Stooges than "legislative, executive, judicial" as the three branches of government.

Americans of mainstream political views think about the judiciary only when it issues a highly controversial decision--outlawing school segregation, legalizing abortion or, last year in Lawrence v. Texas, overturning state sodomy laws. But right-wing extremists constantly think about remaking the courts and the election of progressively more right-wing Republican presidents has served them well since 1968.

In polls this year, Americans identify health care, education, the war in Iraq, the economy and unemployment as the top election issues. Democrats should drive home the point that the courts--in cases involving everything from the right of patients to sue managed care organizations to the USA PATRIOT Act's encroachment on civil liberties--will have a great deal to say about how all of these issues play out. If Bush is re-elected, he will surely pack the nation's highest court with more stooges.

Susan Jacoby is director of the Center for Inquiry-Metro New York and the author of "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism," forthcoming in April from Metropolitan Books.

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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