While the Religious Right crows about a new phony “war” on Thanksgiving, you may soon find yourself seated at the dinner table next to someone who insists on promoting the false notion that church-state separation isn’t found in the Constitution or that the Founding Fathers were all right-wing Christians.
I don’t recommend starting a fight over the dinner table, but sometimes the followers of the Religious Right are determined to stir things up. If you feel like engaging in a little post-pumpkin pie debate, you might find the following helpful. It’s a list of responses that debunk the common myths propagated by the fundamentalists in your family who think churches are under attack or believe public schools would be better off with more prayer.
Myth 1: The United States was founded to be a “Christian nation.” The United States was most certainly not founded to be an officially Christian nation. The U.S. Senate and President John Adams said as much in the Treaty of Tripoli (1797): “As the Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion….” There is also the fact that Jesus (and God for that matter) is not mentioned even once in the body of the Constitution. Many of the Founding Fathers were Deists who were familiar with the bloody religious wars to which Europe had been subjected for hundreds of years. They had no interest in recreating religious strife in a new nation by forcing an official religion on citizens.
Myth 2: Church-state separation is not found in the U.S. Constitution. As famed church-state lawyer Leo Pfeffer once explained: “It is true, of course, that the phrase ‘separation of church and state’ does not appear in the Constitution. But it was inevitable that some convenient term should come into existence to verbalize a principle so widely held by the American people….” In other words, church-state separation is a summary of the Constitution’s religion clauses. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. James Madison is widely considered to be the “father of the Constitution,” and he was a primary drafter of the First Amendment. In a document known as the “Detached Memoranda,” Madison wrote, “Strongly guarded…is the separation between religion and & Gov’t in the Constitution of the United States….” Your Pat Robertson-loving relatives may disagree, but their beef is with Madison, not you.
Myth 3: Churches are facing persecution. Please! Houses of worship enjoy a position of great privilege in America. Churches do not pay taxes. They do not even have to file forms with the IRS to obtain that tremendous tax-free benefit. They can’t be forced to perform anyone’s marriage ceremony. They are exempt from all sorts of anti-discrimination laws when it comes to hiring and firing employees and are routinely exempted from a host of other laws. And when officials in Houston, Texas, recently tried to subpoena some pastors’ sermons, the public outcry was so swift and loud that the subpoenas were withdrawn. How is any of that persecution?
Myth 4: Kids can’t pray in public schools. Although multiple decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court struck down mandatory and coercive prayer and Bible reading in public schools, students maintain considerable rights if they wish to pray. Students in public schools may pray individually or in small groups provided they are not disruptive and do not infringe on the rights of others. They may also read the Bible or other religious texts during their free time.
Myth 5: Churches must be silent on politics. The federal tax code states that all organizations with tax-exemption under Section 501(c)(3), including houses of worship, may not endorse or oppose candidates for office. But that doesn’t mean churches cannot get involved with political matters. Churches are free to discuss ballot initiatives, engage in issue advocacy, lead voter registration drives and even host non-partisan candidate forums. But in doing so, they must not give the impression that any one candidate is favored over others. They may also distribute voter guides, provided such guides are truly non-partisan.
These facts should offer you a quick retort for the Religious Right’s most common myths about the separation of church and state. But of course, some people simply cannot be reasoned with. So if Uncle Frank refuses to accept that the First Amendment guarantees church-state separation, or Aunt Mildred is insistent that Christian “persecution” is real, perhaps it’s best to just let them rant while you have another helping of stuffing.