Sunday, February 19, 2006

Separation of church and state -- two views

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:56 AM |  

Well, it was interesting, I’ll say that.

Responding to my column on liberal hypocrisy, R. Alan James, the founder of The Institute of Theological and Interdisciplinary Studies,” invited me to lunch. Alan is a retired Presbyterian minister, which is, as the politically correct say, “my faith tradition.” The Institute is “dedicated to the exploration of knowledge which promotes lifelong spiritual and intellectual vitality and the enhancement of our human capacities.”

Lunch was interesting -- one of those rare opportunities to engage in civil conversation, not argument, with someone that has different philosophy, conversation that makes one reflect on one’s own positions, conversation focused on understanding rather than arguing.

Alan invited me, and I accepted, an invitation to the Institute’s monthly seminar (held Friday evening at Macalester College). The featured speaker was the Rev. Calvin Didier, former pastor of the house of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul and President of Americans United. Americans United is concerned with keeping the relationship between civil and religious organizations “discrete and independent.” What that means can be garnered from its press release titled “Americans United Deplores Senate Confirmation Of Alito To High Court,” with the subtext “Group Says Alito Now Has Opportunity To Attack Protections For Religious Liberty.”

The Rev. Didier’s presentation was entitled “Is This a Christian Nation.” The synopsis read --

In our time [the] wall of separation [between church and state] has been assaulted and bombarded with presumptions that religious organizations can do secular work more efficiently than civic organizations. Much of this ‘well intentioned’ political maneuvering has been promulgated on the assumption that the United States ‘is a Christian nation’ in the same sense that Iran is ‘an Islamic nation.’

In what sense is this true or false? What difference does it make?”
Okay, enough table setting. I think the picture is clear. This is not exactly your right-wing religious fringe group. But what the heck. As much camaraderie as there is at any event sponsored by the Center of the American Experiment, nonetheless, a conservative ought not just hold a textbook version of liberals, but occassionaly ought to venture out in the wild and view liberals in a natural habitat -- like Macalester College.

The good news, and I admit a bit flattering, is that quite a few people recognized my name, read my columns, and found them “thought-provoking” and “intelligent,” although of course, they did not always agree with them. A quick table count -- there were about 125 people in attendance. Many were Macalester grads, ministerial or professorial types. Our table talked journalism, newspapers and the Internet. To put the conversation (and the crowd) in perspective, the retired minister next to me was considering canceling his Star Tribune subscription because the Strib has dumbed down its content (which included the hiring of Katherine Kersten) and was too conservative.

In his presentation at the Tocqueville Center forum, Eric Black of the Star-Tribune talked about “confirmation bias” -- the idea that people congregate to information that confirms their preconceived ideas rather than challenging themselves with new information. I’ve been critical of conservative gatherings on that point, and it’s time to heap equal criticism on liberals for this fault. This meeting was “confirmation bias” in spades.

I was a little disappointed in the Rev. Didier’s presentation in that there was not a lot of philosophical substance. He traced the historical evolution of the separation of church and state by essentially pulling quotes out of context from the founders and later American icons like John Kennedy. His position, of course, was that any breach in the wall of separation was dangerous to the republic, although he never made quite clear whether the danger was the church’s potential corruption of the state or the state’s potential corruption of the church (see article by Charles Darrell below).

An example of some interesting historical interpretation -- Didier talked about the fact that public schools in the late 1800s were essentially generically Protestant schools. Protestant religious values were taught; the Protestant Bible was used as the reading text. Here’s Didier’s interesting twist -- Protestants informed public education with religion only because the country was overwhelmingly Protestant, and they didn’t realize they had a problem. When immigrants, primarily Catholics, started flooding the country, the Protestants suddenly had a Damascus experience and saw the light -- the public school system violated the principle of separation of church and state. So, in deference to new immigrants, religion was removed from public schools.

I think that the "tolerant and enlightened" view might have been disputed by Catholics that were victims of the widespread anti-Catholic sentiment of the late 1800s, not to mention the ratification of state constitutional “Blaine Amendments” and their “sectarian” language intended to ensure that state money did not flow to Catholic schools, but did continue to support de facto Protestant schools well into the next century.

That strange historical scenario came up in response to a question about school vouchers, which Didier opposed as government support for religion comparable to colonial taxation for support of ministers of state-sponsored religions. “That’s my opinion,” he said. “I don’t know if anyone thinks differently.”

There was about ten seconds or so of silence. It being clear that no one in the room did think differently, valor taking the better part of discretion, I said “Okay, I’ll take that one.”

Well, I can only say I am glad no one dropped dead from shock. Nonetheless, I made the argument that under voucher and tax credit systems, education funds (the state guranteeing free education to all children) go to parents that decide whether to use them at private religious or secular schools and if a religious school, what type of religious school. Vouchers violate neither the establishment clause of the first amendment, nor the free exercise clause. They do not violate Blaine Amendments, in that those apply to direct state aid to specific “sectarian” schools. There is no breach of separation of church and state.

Didier’s response was as puzzling to me as was the look on his face brought on by my argument. He asked me if my explanation meant that vouchers would be distributed universally. I replied that under the Hann/Buesgens bill in Minnesota, vouchers targeted only low-income students.

“Well,” replied Didier, “Then it’s a fairness issue. Unless vouchers are universal they are not fair.”

Now that’s a puzzling answer because it’s not relevant to his main objection that state money would be funneled to religious schools. I didn’t (and don’t) see how sending more state money to more religious schools is philosophically different than sending some state money to some religious schools, but heck, I’d be all for it. I explained that universal vouchers would be great, but public schools objected to even a small implementation of vouchers, let alone universal vouchers, out of fear of too many students leaving failing public schools.

At that point a voice from the back of the room objected saying he was a public educator and disagreed with me. Didier asked if the voice wanted to comment, but no, he just disagreed, at which point Didier reiterated that unless vouchers were universal, they were unfair and moved on.

Having already felt like I pissed on the carpet a little, I didn’t question some of the later comments during the Q&A, but the “confirmation bias” was rampant. One woman asked if the influx of Muslims, “who don’t believe in the separation of church and state,” would contribute to breaking down the wall of separation. “It could” was the essence of a long answer, without considering that her premise is false. At one point, Southern Baptists were mentioned and a knowing “Hmmmmmm” went through the crowd indicating a general agreement as to what those people were like.

One question raised the issue of religions that expect tolerance without granting it, which made the universal mistake of the evening, equating individual religious belief and politics, the subject of my column on Wednesday.

Another person asked the question I would have asked (if I hadn’t already pissed on the rug) about how a religious person should act politically without violating church and state separation. Didier’s response was that it is difficult because it is hard to stay in elective office. He cited Mark Dayton as an example of someone that found it impossible to work in government and at the same time do the fund-raising necessary to get elected. I know -- I didn’t get the connection either.

I may sound a little harsh of the gathering, but challenging my own “confirmation bias” was a good experience and one I recommend to fellow conservatives. Next month, March 31 at 6:45 at Macalester College, The Institute will host Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester, who will speak about what kind of person colleges in general and Macalester specifically are attempting to turn out. It should be interesting for those that believe colleges and universities are little liberal-producing factories. I have never heard Rosenberg speak, but I have heard good things about him. There’s a lengthy question and answer session. More (respectful) questions might enliven the discussion.

Institute seminars, including a buffet dinner, are free (donations accepted but not required) or one can simply come for the presentation. One needs to reserve space in advance (or for more information) via email at -- for those interested in a safari outside the safety of the blogosphere and into the wilds of intellectual liberalism.

Update: Also in response my Wednesday column, Chuck Darrell of Minnesota for Marriage sent me the following column that originally appeared (February 4) on the Orthodoxy Today web site. It’s a good counter to the viewpoint expressed at the Institute seminar.

Separation Anxiety

by Charles H. Darrell

Every time someone says “that’s in violation of separation of church and state”, I am reminded of Pavlov’s dog – the canine trained to salivate at the sound of a bell. This is because American’s have become pre-conditioned to respond with “…violation…” when stimulated by the juxtaposition of religion and government. Although this “stupid pet trick” makes for good late-night comedy, it exposes the success of historical revisionists to redefine the original intent of the Establishment Clause, and, reveals the nations “separation anxiety” concerning the future of religions protected role as an independent influence upon American democracy.

A recent example of historical revisionism is Michael Newdow’s failed attempt to prohibit public prayer offered by ministers, and all other “Christian religious acts” at the Presidential Inauguration. Armed with untruths, omissions, and insinuations, Newdow asserts “It’s an offense of the highest magnitude that the leader of our nation, while swearing to uphold the Constitution, publicly violates that very document upon taking his oath of office.”

Conversely, the historical evidence reveals that the Founding Fathers, “and legal authorities for generations afterwards”, encouraged an oath because, in the words of Daniel Webster the “Defender of the Constitution”, it’s “founded on a degree of consciousness that there is a Power above us that will reward our virtues or punish our vices…” If this is true, then why was Newdow’s complaint considered by Chief Justice Rehnquist; and why are so many Americans unsure of the religious freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution?

In his book, Original Intent, the Courts, the Constitution, & Religion, David Barton defines revisionism as the “intentional distortion of historical fact to advance a political agenda”. Via a mountain of primary sources, Barton proves, that beginning with the 1947 Supreme Court decision Everson vs. Board of Education, the courts, legislature and educational institutions have deliberately distorted both the judicial, and historical record of the First Amendment; and portray, that the heritage and religious beliefs of the Founders “mandates a religion-free public arena.”

Consequently, the public’s understanding of the First Amendment has been re-engineered from; a federal endorsement of religious _expression by prohibiting the establishment of a national denomination; to a vague “separation myth” (found in a letter between President Thomas Jefferson and the Baptist Associate of Danbury Connecticut) used, by many, for the secular cleansing of all religious intent, precedent, inscriptions, case law and now, religious references in the oath of office.

Was President Bush in violation of the Establishment Clause? Ironically, the answer seems to lie between two phrases penned by Jefferson himself: “all men are … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…,” and, “…building a wall of separation between Church and State.” According to Barton “Jefferson believed that God, not government, was the Author and Source of our rights and that the government, therefore, was to be prevented from interference with those rights. Very simply, the…wall of separation between church and state was not to limit religious activities in public; rather they were to limit the power of the government to prohibit or interfere with those expressions.”

Perhaps Jefferson was the first to suffer separation anxiety when he queried; “And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure if we have lost the only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?”

Are we ready to separate God (church) from people (state)? At the Constitutional Convention, George Mason, the “Father of the Bill of Rights” reminded the delegates, “As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, so they must be in this.” In March the U.S. Supreme Court will hear two cases regarding the display of the Ten Commandments. Instead of salivating, let’s pray they make an informed decision.

Charles H. Darrell is a free-lance writer and financial consultant, living in Woodbury. He can be reached at