June 2008 Church & State | Viewpoint

May 2 was my last day at Americans United. Before I go off to law school, I want to reflect on the many valuable lessons I’ve learned in my three years as a communications assistant here.

1) People aren’t afraid to tell you to go to hell, so don’t take it personally.

Part of my job entailed fielding calls, letters and email from the public. I started a week before the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Ten Commandments cases in 2005, so I learned quickly how vituperative people can be. Talk about baptism by fire! Here’s part of an e-mail I received that first week:

“I hate your souls with a white-hot, fire-breathing passion…..May all of you burn in a Living, Eternal Hellfire…. Eat the flames of Hell, you rotten [bleep].”

Here’s one from Christmas 2006:

“You are truly bottom feeders! Go to Hell, Slimebags!”

Well, Merry Christmas to you, too, buddy!

2) The devil’s in the details.

I wrote recently for AU’s blog, “The Wall of Separation,” about Focus on the Family’s factually challenged response to a recent federal court decision. That’s just one example of how people’s reckless disregard for the truth hampers constructive discussions about church-state separation. Facts matter, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve responded to nasty accusations based on bad information.

And it’s not all the Religious Right’s fault. The media’s also partly to blame for Americans’ piecemeal understanding of current church-state issues. I’ve learned in this job that there are always several sides to a story and you’re lucky if the media reports two of them. Do your research!

3) Education is essential.

This is the most common e-mail AU gets:

“As you are well aware, the ‘separation of church and state’ is NOT in our Constitution. Your platform is un-Constitutional.”

I am indeed aware that the phrase “separation of church and state” is not in the Constitution. I am also aware of the fact that we are governed by more than the document’s text. Our law is shaped by how the U.S. Supreme Court interprets that text, and it has said for more than 60 years that the First Amendment requires the separation of church and state.

I also know that there are many common phrases used to describe what’s in the Constitution but aren’t actually in the text. A “right to a fair trial,” for example, isn’t in there. I’d hope the person who says there’s no such thing as church-state separation wouldn’t say the same about the right to a fair trial, but I can’t be sure.

This is another common e-mail:

“This is a Christian nation, founded on the Bible.”

A poll conducted by the First Amendment Center in 2007 found that 65 percent of American adults believe the Founders intended the United States to be a Christian nation and 55 percent believe the Constitution actually establishes it as such.

The Founders had every opportunity to do that if they wanted to, but the Constitution nevermentions Christianity or its teachings; it is a secular document through and through.

A treaty with Tripoli ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1797 says “the government of the United States of America is not founded in any sense on the Christian religion.”

4) The Religious Right will never truly die.

The Religious Right isn’t just a political movement, it’s a mentality. Books abound about the movement’s demise, but I’m not buying it. The movement’s political power has waxed and waned over the past three decades and it will continue to do so. In the meantime, I’m more concerned about the mentality.

Here’s an e-mail I received a few weeks ago:

“Go away. Real Americans don’t want or need you.”

And one from 2005:

“Congratulations on being the most satanic organization on earth. I’m sorry there is no reward for that….Americans United for the Separation of Church and State is the most unpatriotic group I have ever seen….Your picture is also beside ‘terrorism’ and ‘unpatriotic.’”

As long as that mentality survives, the Religious Right will never truly die. Enough said.

5) Religious liberty is, at its heart, about equality – and we’re not there yet.

Roger Williams, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson knew that equality lay at the heart of what they created. It depresses and discourages me to think that so many Americans don’t understand – or don’t accept – this concept.

Governments in the United States don’t have religious opinions because they must treat every citizen equally. Justice Hugo Black wrote in 1963 that “[w]hen the power [and] prestige…of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain.”

Black’s observation defines why I’ve spent three wonderful years at Americans United. We have a long way to go, but I’m confident AU’s work – and your support – will get us there.

Lauren Smith served for three years as a communications assistant at Americans United. She resigned in May to attend the University of Michigan Law School.