Starting today and continuing through early next week, Faith in Public Live is excited to host an exchange between two of the nation’s leading experts on defending the First Amendment. Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University, is the author, most recently, of Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical’s Lament (Basic Books). Bruce Prescott blogs under the name Mainstream Baptist,, as well as at the Christian Alliance for Progress and Talk2Action, and is a leading national activist on defending the separation of church and state.
It’s a pleasure to have the chance to trade posts with you to develop some ideas about the current state of the First Amendment in our country today. I hope this first post can serve as a jumping off point for later discussion. I’m interested to see where we agree and where we might have differences of opinion.
Of all the political strategies being pursued these days by leaders of the Religious Right, none is more pernicious than the attempt to eviscerate the First Amendment. By trying to impose public prayer in public schools (students can pray privately any time they wish!), by advocating public funding and school vouchers for use in religious schools and by seeking to emblazon religious sentiments on public places, they try to undermine the separation of church and state, the best friend that religion has ever had.
There is even a movement within the Religious Right, led by David Barton and others, to deny that our nation’s founders intended church and state to be separate. I’ve come to equate these people with the Holocaust deniers and those who debunk global warming — not in the sense of moral equivalence, but in the sense of the brazenness of their denials, all evidence to the contrary. Compounding this betrayal, many of the leaders of the Religious Right, from Pat Robertson and Richard Land to Roy Moore and Rick Scarborough, claim to be Baptists, ignoring altogether that the notion of church-state separation was a Baptist idea.
Roger Williams, founder of the Baptist tradition in America, came to the New World as a Puritan minister in Salem, Massachusetts. He quickly ran afoul of the Puritan authorities because he feared that the faith would be compromised by too close an association with the church. Williams wanted to protect, in his words, the “garden of the church” from the “wilderness of the world” by means of (again, his words) a “wall of separation.” Williams was expelled from Massachusetts and went to what is now Rhode Island; he formed there a colony that enshrined the ideas of liberty of individual conscience and freedom from state-dictated religion.
Although this notion of separation of church and state was utterly unprecedented in Western culture, the founding fathers, in their wisdom, codified Williams’s ideas into the First Amendment of the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Although it is true that Congress continued to pass appropriations for the printing and the distribution of Bibles, for instance, the eventual termination of this practice, far from illustrating that the founders never intended church-state separation, actually shows the beauty of the balance of powers provision of the Constitution. The courts eventually stepped in, as they are Constitutionally empowered to do, and ruled that, in light of the increased pluralism of American society, it was no longer appropriate for the government to be supporting a particular religion.
As one of the expert witnesses in the Alabama Ten Commandments case, I argued that religion has flourished in this nation for more than two centuries precisely because the government has (for the most part, at least) stayed out of the religion business. We Americans are off the charts as reckoned by our belief in God and by our attendance at religious worship. We have in this country a vibrant, salubrious religious culture because we have refused to establish any one religion or denomination, and we have allowed religion to function in a “free market,” where religious entrepreneurs (to extend the metaphor) are free to compete with one another and no one enjoys the sanction of the government.
As a person of faith, I have a further objection to the entanglement of church and state. It ultimately trivializes the faith because it suggests that religion needs the support of the state for legitimacy. When you fetishize the Ten Commandments or demand a ritualized, formal prayer in school or on public occasions, you diminish the faith itself.
That is precisely what Roger Williams, a Baptist, feared.
Looking forward to your reply,
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Pastor Dan at Street Prophets catches the hypocrisy of Pat Robertson, who’s apparently not going to win any humanitarian awards. Also, great collection of stats on the conflict. “Lebanese economists have cut growth forecasts to zero or below from 5-6 percent. Some say the economy could shrink by 2-3 percent, with the tourism sector particularly hard hit.” Yeah, that’ll drive out the terrorists!
David Buckley’s got a good Boston Globe cartoon on Lieberman over at Faith in Public Life.
For “Moore” Lieberman hilarity catch JSpot.
Michelle, of Metacentricies, posts an interesting round up of environmental and tech news . Check out the link to the Washington Post on Cheney’s wacky comments about the majority of Americans supporting al Qaeda.
If you are interested in some possible US gov. repercussions of the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict catch Sy Hersh in the current New Yorker. Money quote:
Some current and former intelligence officials who were interviewed for this article believe that Rumsfeld disagrees with Bush and Cheney about the American role in the war between Israel and Hezbollah. The U.S. government consultant with close ties to Israel said that “there was a feeling that Rumsfeld was jaded in his approach to the Israeli war.” He added, “Air power and the use of a few Special Forces had worked in Afghanistan, and he tried to do it again in Iraq. It was the same idea, but it didn’t work. He thought that Hezbollah was too dug in and the Israeli attack plan would not work, and the last thing he wanted was another war on his shift that would put the American forces in Iraq in greater jeopardy.”
Always musing and Catholic, Even the Devils Believe reflects on reasons for war. “I guess the question is whether pacifism is a principled position or just a rhetorical one,” he wonders.
Radical Torah posts on Lebanon Through the Lens of Tisha B’Av. And Islamicate notes a Newsweek article about how Jews deserted Lieberman.
The Shalom Center lists Ten Ways to Save the Lives of Abraham’s Children.
Reverend Mommy posts about working on the CPE.
If you are interested in the politics of the Anglican communion, be sure to read Father Jake Stops the World. He reprints a recent Coats article from Episcopal Majority. He’s got 58 comments on it the last I checked.
And, Semitism.net (pro-Israel, pro-Arab, pro-peace) doesn’t pull punches: no matter which way I head these days in the pro-Israel world — Jewish or Christian right — it looks like I am going to Hell.
Mainstream Baptist marks the loss of church/state separation champion Robert Alley.
Xpatriated Texan writes about the Limits of Greed.
And finally, speaking of limits, Talk to Action points out the connection between politics and the tribulation. Good God, the end to that needs to be neigh.
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A good laugh from yesterday’s Boston Globe.
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Today, the Center for American Progress reports that:
Focus on the Family has mailed brochures to more than 90,000 Missouri homes, arguing that stem cell research under the Missouri ballot initiative would exploit women by luring them into dangerous egg donations. The brochure, “Women’s voices against cloning,” quotes several women’s organizations to show “the risks that this measure [Missouri ballot initiative] poses to women’s health.” The Progress Report spoke with several of the women’s organizations quoted in the brochure who said that Focus on the Family misrepresented their positions and they disagree with the organization’s aims to ban stem cell research. Judy Norsigian, author of Our Bodies, Ourselves, said that while she has some concerns about the somatic cell nuclear transplant (SCNT) technique, she is actually “very supportive of most embryonic stem cell research.”
This follows a disturbing trend among right wing religious groups, one of not checking their facts and even mispresenting reality.
For example, the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures states that the opponents’ argument, that supporters of the Stem Cell Initiative “have a ‘profit motive’ for wanting to pursue stem cell cures, is false and absurd. The truth is, the major medical institutions involved in stem cell research in Missouri – such as the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Washington University School of Medicine and the University of Missouri – are non-profit institutions.”
Yesterday, the Colorado Springs Independent reported that Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals attacked the Christian Coalition. Why? Because according to him (not the New York Times) the Christian Coalition twisted words. According to his associate pastor, “he was saying the Christian Coalition is not a reliable source of information for Christians.” Ouch!
And finally, the Columbus Dispatch reports:
By Thursday, [GOP] state Chairman Robert T. Bennett knew the party had been caught red-handed and issued an apology to the victim, U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, the Democratic nominee for governor. But the scurrilous mission had been accomplished: Let the whispering campaign begin.
The attack had nothing to do with records or resumes or policy. It was brutally personal — and a lie. The message the GOP had asked its followers to spread across the Ohioscape is that Strickland and his wife are gay, never mind their nearly 20 years of marriage.
In yet another perversion of religion, the state party hired a conservative Christian to do the dirty work, using a computer at party headquarters to spread the rumor via e-mail to “profamily” conservatives. Gary Lankford, headmaster of a Christian home school, started in early July as the Ohio GOP’s “social conservative coordinator.”
That’s four recent examples. Whether a person is progressive or conservative, sloppy research and deliberate dishonesty hurts the cause of faith. As became clear in Ralph Reed’s Georgia defeat, decent folks with faith-full traditions of honesty and good work are beginning to see in the endorsement of Focus on the Family, the Christian Coalition, and Restoration Ohio a dogged reason to doubt.
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I want to thank both Amy and Thurman for taking the time for their stimulating exchange of ideas last week on this blog. It modeled the freedom to discuss controversial topics and civility of tone that should characterize public debates. Faith in Public LIVE will bring similar extended debates to you on a regular basis in this space, so stay tuned in coming weeks.
I also want to take a moment to thank our summer interns who have done such great work with us and are beginning to depart. Lauren, Dave and Alex are sure to go on from here to do fantastic work for justice and the common good in the years ahead. We’ve been lucky to have them in our camp during this exciting summer, and look forward to the arrival of our interns for this fall.
Rev. Jennifer Butler
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