U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) seems to believe that church-state separation is harming American society.

In remarks delivered yesterday on the U.S. Senate floor, the longtime lawmaker criticized the concept of a church-state wall.

“The erroneous wall-of-separation doctrine has narrowed the role of religion in public discourse, fueling the view that religion is a private matter rather than a fundamental precept of American civil society,” Hatch said. “Even members of this esteemed body have fallen prey to the disturbing claim that religious freedom doesn’t extend much further than the church door.”

Hatch’s speech was the fourth in a series of eight sermonettes he plans to give on religious liberty. Unfortunately, he has a narrow idea of what religious freedom actually means. Yesterday, he claimed that principle is under attack in the United States.

“[R]eligious liberty has come under coordinated assault by those who would hastily discard one of our founding principles to serve a narrow, transient political agenda,” he opined.

The senator from Utah went on to blame the U.S. Supreme Court for what he called the “rigid separation between church and state” and listed some examples in which the high court has allegedly “kept religion out of the public square and fed the idea that religion is a private matter to be practiced within the confines of one’s church or home.”

Hatch cited “[n]o prayer in school”; "[n]o new Ten Commandments displays – or even Christmas or Hanukkah displays – unless carefully secularized”; “a widespread prejudice” against politicians talking about God; and the fictional “war on Christmas” as evidence that religion has been removed or restricted from public life.

Of course those are all bad examples that offer no support for Hatch’s claims. It’s an old Religious Right lie that kids can’t pray in school. As long as prayers are voluntary or student lead and do not infringe on anyone else’s rights or cause a disruption, they are not violating the Constitution.

As for Ten Commandments, Christmas and Hanukkah displays – how, exactly, does one secularize many of them? Hatch doesn’t say, probably because it’s impossible to remove religious content from blatantly religious teachings and celebrations.

If there is, in fact, “prejudice” against public officials who discuss God (a rather dubious assertion given our religion-soaked political discourse), how is that a legal matter? Politicians are free to discuss their personal beliefs. Everyone else is free to criticize or praise those ideas. It seems Hatch has a problem with the free exchange of ideas.

And finally, there is not nor has there ever been a “war on Christmas.”

Anyone who follows the Supreme Court knows that the justices have been all over the map on church-state separation over the years. After all, “In God We Trust” has repeatedly been upheld as our national motto. Thus the high court can hardly be accused of applying “rigid” separation.

Hatch tried to explain that all these modern developments go against the intent of the Founding Fathers, but he did a really bad job of making that case too. He blamed the origin of strict church-state separation on Thomas Jefferson, noting accurately that Jefferson pushed for separation in Virginia, but arguing inaccurately that Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was little more than an “experiment” that “constituted a decidedly minority viewpoint in the early Republic.”

In reality, Jefferson’s so-called experimentation forms the basis of the religion clauses in the U.S. Constitution. It is telling that Hatch’s rather lengthy diatribe makes no mention of James Madison, Jefferson’s protégé and primary author of the First Amendment. While Jefferson himself was not directly involved with the creation of the Constitution (he was in France at the time), he was there in spirit thanks to Madison – who put the noble concept of separation into the Bill of Rights.  

Hatch’s remarks reveal his unfamiliarity with American history. He pontificated that “[t]he dominant model at the time was embodied by the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution drafted by John Adams, which largely protected religious liberty but also instituted a ‘mild and equitable establishment of religion’ that enshrined Christian piety and virtue.”

Adams was no theocrat. In fact, he was a Unitarian who came to reject most of the fundamental tenets of Christianity. Like Jefferson, Adams was not present at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 (he was in England at the time), but unlike Jefferson, his ideas on religion did not make it into our nation’s final governing document.

Hatch really should know better. Although he acknowledged in his speech that “as a Mormon, I’m keenly aware both of how the machinery of government can be used to oppress religious minorities,” his words ring hollow.

Hatch is right when he says a state can easily repress religious minorities, such as Mormons. But what does he think prevents the U.S. government from doing just that? It’s the First Amendment and the idea of church-state separation. It’s especially ironic because Hatch’s own religion likely wouldn’t even exist were it not for church-state separation.  

Instead of making ill-informed speeches on the supposedly dire state of religious liberty in America, Hatch should go read a civics book.