“Tumbling Walls: Separation of Church and State”
A Sermon delivered to the West Seattle UU Fellowship
September 12th, 2004
Rev. Peg Boyle Morgan
This country began with a strong anti-Catholic anti-Jewish bias. While there was freedom of religion, only protestants could be elected President. When John F. Kennedy was running for President, he decided to take the issue head on, speaking before a group of Protestant ministers in, of all places, Houston, before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.
John F. Kennedy--
Because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured—perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again—not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me—but what kind of America I believe in.
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute—where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote—where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference—and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic,
Protestant nor Jewish—where no public official either requests or
accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National
Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source—where no
religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the
general populace or the public acts of its officials—and where
religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is
treated as an act against all.
p. 293 The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America
And this poem by John Wheeler Tufts, “Not For a Nation”
Not for the flag
Of any land because myself was born there
Will I give up my life.
But I will love that land where [citizens are]man is free,
And that will I defend.
“To the end?” you ask, “To the end?”
Naturally, to the end.
I sat with a group of visitors to a Unitarian congregation. We had gone around the room sharing our faith stories, what our religions beliefs were as children, how they changed over the years, how it was that we finally found our way to a Unitarian congregation. While the names of our childhood religions were different, there was a common pattern—beliefs held as young people were passed through the power of reason and life experience, and rejected. Immaculate conception, walking on water, dietary prohibitions, bodily resurrections, hell fire—these and more were no longer believed.
And we shared how coming to a Unitarian Universalist congregation was a relief, like coming home. At last, we can bring both our heads and our hearts. At last our gender and our sexual orientation were fully welcomed into community and into religious leadership. At last we were encouraged to trust our own life experience and beliefs.
That’s the moment in the evening when I reflected on what we had all shared. For had we been living in the 1500’s in Europe or even the 1800’s in England, and shared what we shared with each other that evening, we could have been sentenced to imprisonment, torture or death. There was no relief in Europe except for the occasional and temporary hideouts and the great Edict of Tolerance, issued by history’s only Unitarian king, King John Sigismund, of Transylvania in 1568. That edict, though short lived due to the King’s death, was the first time a King did not choose one religion for his kingdom, but rather allowed religious freedom. For the most part, human beings throughout history have lived in lands with mandatory religious practices and/or mandatory tax support for a national religion.
How fortunate we are to live in a land where there is freedom of belief, where all religions are allowed. But this was not always true in this land either. And, because of the freedoms we have enjoyed for so long, we have forgotten our nation’s history or at least we take religious freedom for granted.
When the colonists first came to North America, they were fleeing the evils inherent in an establishment system, where church and state are essentially one, and yet the Puritans established essentially, their own theocracy—their own colony with a mandatory religion. They did not imagine another way. They now were free to practice their religion, but nobody else was. Even if you did not go to church, part of your taxes went to the town church.
Colonists who were atheists or who belonged to minority religions such as Baptist, Catholic or Jewish were punished, expelled and executed-- right here in this land. Though this intolerance lessened by early 1700’s, it would be some time before the church tax was relaxed to allow you to redirect your tax to your own church. But there was no religious freedom for the non-Christian.
Though only about 15% of the people at the time of the Revolutionary War belonged to churches, most state constitutions referenced God. Massachusetts’ Constitution of 1780 as an example, stated “It is the duty of all men in society publicly and at stated seasons to worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator and Preserver of the universe.”
In contrast two colonies legislated religious freedom. Rhode Island’s founder, Roger Williams testified that compulsory conformity to any religious doctrine was “soul rape,” and indeed I believe it is.
Virginia adopted “A Statute for Religious Freedom” which had been by Thomas Jefferson. That statute was sharply debated and fought over before its passage. Religious freedom did not come easily.
When it came to the establishment of our country’s national constitution, there were numerous hard fought attempts to declare ours a Christian nation. Two factors mitigated against this. One, the influence of the thinking of the European Enlightenment upon our Founding Fathers—which included rejecting the divine right of kings and clergy, and which called for finding truth through the use of reason, the findings of science, and confidence in humanity. The other factor was the increase in the number of minority religious people.
It was a struggle, still, to keep the name of Jesus out of the constitution. Article 6 states “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” This godless constitution language was attacked by those who feared a secular state. One delegate from Massachusetts argued that America’s leaders must believe in God and Jesus Christ. Many delegates feared that the lack of a religious test would open the country up to the control of Jews, Catholics, Quakers, or even atheists. Some feared pagans. Religious freedom did not come easily. But ultimately, all such Christianizing efforts failed to influence the wording of the constitution. However, President Kennedy’s struggle, heard in our reading earlier demonstrated the strong lingering prejudice, despite the constitution.
The Constitution was passed, creating, in essence, a secular government. The Bill of Rights extended the clarity on freedom of religion by adding the First Amendment—“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Our Founding Fathers, those who debated and signed the constitution, were passionate about religious freedom. They have left many moving testaments which I believe we need to remember when the religious right of today tries to convince the American public that we need to go back to our Founders Christian roots.
Unitarian John Adams spoke to his pride in the constitution being founded on the laws of nature rather than on mystery and miracle. He said: “The United States of America have exhibited perhaps the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an [advanced] era in their history. …It will never be pretended that any persons employed in the service [of approving this constitution] had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven.” I believe he was proud of the separation of church and state.
And James Madison, perhaps the greatest supporter for separation of church and state, and whom many refer to as the father of the Constitution, said “And I have no doubt that [this constitution will show]… that religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.
Unitarian Thomas Jefferson tried to address people’s fears of difference when he said: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only [if they]… are injurious to others. It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." (from Notes on Virginia)
Later, when he was President, Jefferson coined the phrase “Building a wall of separation between Church and State.” A Baptist Association in Connecticut was still being persecuted by Puritans. They appealed to the influence of Jefferson. He replied to them with these historical words: “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”
The constitution served as a tool to eventually eliminate the state
mandated church taxes, with Massachusetts being the last state to give
it up in 1833. 1833! That is only 171 years ago!
What I want us to remember from this brief historical review, is that very few peoples of the world have lived with religious freedom, and even in this country religious freedom almost didn’t happen, but for the adamant efforts of some of our Founding Fathers. George Santayana said that “those who do not remember their history are condemned to repeat it.” I fear we may go back to colonial days, or worse, for the religious right has been working extremely hard for over 200 years to make it so.
Almost a century and a half ago, several Protestant denominations mounted a campaign to add references to God in the US Constitution and other federal documents. While unsuccessful, they also wrote to the Director of the Mint. In 1864, during the stress of the civil war, they were able to get the words “In God We Trust” onto our currency, as a reminder that God was on the side of the Union in regards to slavery. We first saw it on a 2 cent coin, then on gold coins, silver dollars, quarters and half dollars. President Eisenhower signed a law making it mandatory on all U.S. money. We all carry God in our pockets.
During the 1950’s the government’s references to God multiplied. The country’s motto of E Pluribus Unum, “out of many, one” –out of many, one—what a great motto for honoring unity in diversity! This motto was replaced by Congress with those same words “In God We Trust” just at the time of the height of the cold war and McCarthy communist witch hunt. The change was partly motivated by a desire to differentiate between communism, which was seen as promoting atheism, and Western capitalistic democracies, which were at least nominally Christian. This motto has been challenged by three lawsuits and has been found to be constitutional. The courts basically found that the motto does not endorse religion but rather invokes more of a patriotic or ceremonial feeling, and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise.
In 1954 the Catholic Knights of Columbus undertook a successful campaign to have the words “Under God” added to the pledge of allegiance. These words were reaffirmed by Congress just a couple years ago, with a 99% vote in the House and unanimously in the Senate. Also in the 50’s the words “So help me God,” were added as a suffix to oaths of office for federal justices and judges.
Although recent court cases have taken prayer out of public schools, the Ten Commandments off the walls of public property, and religious holiday displays out of our town halls we cannot take our religious freedom for granted. Current efforts are pushing for these decisions to be overturned, as well as pushing for funding for private parochial schools and faith based social service funding. The tensions that have existed between those who want to impose their religion on everyone, and those who want the “wall of separation” have only increased.
The Christian Coalition has emerged as a powerful political machine in the electronics age using television and the internet. Jerry Falwell said “I do not believe in the separation of church and state, nor did our founders. This is a nation under God, built upon the Judeo-Christian ethic. America is in trouble today because she has forgotten her religious heritage.”
Pat Robinson, televangelist and in the past a Presidential hopeful “charged that the ‘separation of church and state’ was nothing more than ‘a lie of the left,’ and that true Christians ought to take back the country…. “
When a Hindu priest from Parma Ohio offered an invocation before a session of Congress, --a historical first—a moment of pride for our country—The Family Research Council, a major Christian right lobbying group related to James Dobson of Focus on the Family attacked the prayer event, saying that Hindu prayer should not be permitted. “While it is true that the US was founded on the sacred principle of religious freedom for all, that liberty was never intended to exalt other religions to the level that Christianity holds in our country’s heritage.”
Randall Terry, head of the antiabortion group Operation Rescue,
denounced those who celebrated the nation’s religious pluralism.
‘I want you to just let a wave of intolerance wash over you,’ he told
his followers in 1993. ‘I want you to let a wave of hatred wash
over you. Yes, hate is good…Our goal is a Christian nation.
We have a biblical duty, we are called by God, to conquer this
country. We don’t want equal time. We don’t want
pluralism.’ (P. 295 The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America, by Frank Lambert)
Recently the Washington Post reported that the current Presidential re-election campaign is being sued for working through church members to get access to church membership directories, and for setting quotas for recruiting campaign workers from each church—blatant violations of church and state!
What is even more scary are the words from our U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia –a person who has the power and the responsibility to interpret laws based upon our constitution, a person who has the power not only to persuade, but to make the law of the land, ---but yet who said, “It seems to me that the reaction of people of faith to this tendency of democracy to obscure the divine authority behind government should …be the resolution to combat it ..[by] a constant public reminder that…we are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a supreme being.” Justice Scalia, show me that in the constitution!
My friends, religious freedom is not a foregone conclusion. Our right to meet as Unitarian Universalists, our right to not support other churches, our freedom from persecution are not cast in concrete. Thomas Jefferson once said that
“The tree of liberty is watered with the blood of every generation.”
For over 2000 years our UU spiritual ancestors have shed their blood for our religious freedom. Our generation must remain alert to the chipping away of religious freedoms, and diluting of the intentions of our Founding Fathers as written into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
We will never loose the tensions of this struggle, but we would be na´ve to think that we cannot lose our religious freedoms. If we lose religious freedoms the demise of our other liberties will not be far behind. In the pluralistic world that we live in, such efforts to create theocracies are dangerous to minorities and threatened minorities are dangerous to the peace and well being of everyone. We see this every day.
Loss of religious freedom would be tantamount, as we heard earlier, to “soul rape.” Loss of religious freedom means loss of freedom of conscience, and such a loss strikes at the heart of what it means to be human. Such a loss creates a climate of fear and numbs our ability to reason and express our ideas. And free expression of ideas is a cornerstone of what this country was founded on. Separation of church and state is a prerequisite of a democracy.
So what is asked of us today? To be patriotic by being a watch-dog for attempted breaches of the “wall of separation.” Faith communities and the press in this country ought to sound the call when violations of religious freedom are proposed. And we are called, as we are able, to invest in organizations that are working to preserve our great Constitution’s religious freedom—organizations like the People for the American Way and the national Interfaith Alliance. And we need to support liberal religious institutions like ours to keep them strong, vibrant and ready to demonstrate for their freedoms and for their very existence. And we must not forget to monitor ourselves, so that we not only call for separation of church and state, but we endeavor to keep from violating the principle ourselves. We need to covenant to speak of issues and their effects upon humans and other life, but not to endorse or coerce our membership to vote for specific initiatives or candidates for office.
I love our country. I love our flag for what it stood for when our nation was founded. Last night tears filled my eyes at the Mariner’s game as I sing the national anthem.
As John Wheeler Tufts said: “I will love that land where citizens are free, and that will I defend.”
I believe we are called to defend the struggle that was asserted just 228 years ago. I believe we are called to remember our true history. To work to maintain this country as a country that does not legislate Jesus, does not call for hate, but rather does what Jesus would do—love and include everyone—including the minorities and the outcasts--the authentic religious response of Jesus… not a hateful response couched in Jesus’ name. Such a response would lean us toward preserving this great free way of living, so that our children and our children’s children can live in a land that honors the freedom of their inherent human capacity of conscience.
So may it be. Amen