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Corrupting the Cross
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Although physical in their material composition both the Christian crucifix and the American Constitution have transcended their material significance. Both are objects that have become sacred, evoking reverence and great emotion in their representation of some great ideal. Both have affected their followers with such passion, myriads of men and women have given their lives in pursuit of their grand and noble ideals. Each symbols of great power, both were a part of an astonishingly expedient rise to power (Christianity in just a few centuries, and the U.S. in less than two). The differences between these objects, of course, are far greater than they are similar. In one, we find a profound religious expression of faith, an intimate belief beyond the temporal world, while the other speaks to a purely earthly purpose. One symbolizes the Christian faith and the dedication of that faith's holy author, God. The other, the Constitution, was the work of earthly architects like Benjamin Franklin and James Madison, and purely concerns itself with the governance of our nation, here and now. Though reasonable minds prevailed at the ratification of the Constitution, the call to unite these vastly incongruent artifacts has never been more clamorous than it is today.
Recently, the fight to keep God and government separated was waged by a resilient minority in Brevard County, Florida.
When two parents from different householdsone a Buddhist, the other an atheistteamed up to stop to their children's high school from holding public graduation ceremonies at a local mega-church, Calvary Chapel, which refused to secularize the venue by covering or taking down its 15-20 foot cross and other iconography, the notably conservative community collectively gasped.
Parent Sonia Marquez told the local paper, Florida Today, in a May 17, 2005 article, "The place is spacious, and it has nothing to do with religion. It's being rented." In the same article, another parent, Richard Warner, said, "A lot of parents at Bayside [High School] are just furious at what these people are trying to pull." Suzanne Beers, also a parent, told the newspaper in a May 15, 2005 article, "It's taking away from the kids to make it a religious, political, governmental battle." One surly local, angry over the attempt to move the graduation, told one of the parents, via email, "Certainly you can dedicate your cause to something worthwhile but no, you feel you can impose your will on the majority who want the graduation at Calvary."
With the assistance of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the parents took the Brevard County School Board to court just a few days before the first of four graduations were set to begin. Federal District Judge Gregory A. Presnell determined that there wasn't enough time to stop the graduations from taking place. Judge Presnell did, however, side with the plaintiffs in agreeing that the school board had violated 12th grade student Jennifer Musgrove's rights by wrongly choosing a religious venue for the event. According to a May 19 Florida Today story, in court Presnell said, "It's clear to me a secular facility without those icons should have been chosen in order to protect the interests of everyone..."
By October 25, 2005, the Brevard County School Board decided to save the estimated $100,000 it would have inevitably lost in a no-win court battle and gave in to demands that prevent graduations from being held in "houses of worship in which religious iconography is visible to participants or to anyone in attendance on either the outside or the inside of the building."
Before the final settlement, the legal tussle immediately became top news throughout Central Florida. Opinion polls conducted by the local newspaper and local TV stations showed overwhelming support for not changing the location of the graduation, with fewer than 20 percent objecting to the use of a church. Christians angry over the audacity of the plaintiffs, who included published atheist author Dianna Narciso, sent vitriolic e-mails, drove by the plaintiffs' homes, and, in general, complained of their disregard for the wishes of the apparent majority who were fine with the venue.
The rift created by this local battle over where to hold graduation ceremonies reveals one of the toxic elements responsible for destroying the edifice of the wall between church and state today: Many Christians believe the wall is an atheist's war on Christianity and belief. The fact that those willing to take tough stands on issues like school prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, and graduation ceremonies are often atheists and non-traditional believers doesn't help to discount such a perception either. But, as is the case with this issue, the truth is often deeper than surface perceptions.
After contacting numerous area religious leaders, I discovered that many of them were also opposed to holding the graduations at the church. A local Jewish leader, Cantor Pat Hickman of Temple Israel in Viera, Florida, said she agreed that graduations should not be held at churches.
"I think most of the people in my community were uncomfortable with the idea of having a public school graduation in a facility that had very strong symbols of one particular faith. I think that there are lots of other places that public schools can have their ceremonies, where they don't exclude anybody or make anybody feel uncomfortable even if there are just a few people in the graduating class who are another faith. It didn't seem appropriate to me," Hickman said.
Swamiji Chid Ghan Anand, spiritual leader of the Shri Shiv Dham Hindu Temple in Orlando, outside of Brevard, concurred. "[The venue] should not be related to a religion," he said, "because there are many people going to that school who are not Christian or maybe not related to Christians or maybe don't want to be related to Christians."
But support for the separation of church and state wasn't limited to Hindus, atheists, and Jews. Representing a large number of Christians who support church-state separation, the Rev. Alicia S. Rapp of the Florida-based Palm Bay Riviera United Church of Christ, explained that just a few days after the contended graduations began taking place at a church, she was frustrated to find the boundaries of separation of church and state garishly blurred before her very eyes. Not only was her son's sixth grade public school graduation held at a Presbyterian church, but after the ceremony, members of the church enticed children with free Tootsie-Roll pops and proceeded to give them flyers regarding the church's basketball camp and its vacation Bible school. When Rapp reached her car, she found yet another piece of church literature on her windshield: "And I know that the church was just thinking, 'Hey this is a great time to market our church.' But I think of it as crossing the line."
Rapp went on to explain that her church goes out of its way to ensure it doesn't cross the important boundary between God and government. "We don't allow politics to cross over into our congregation... When I preach from the pulpit I also preach about the war and those kinds of things... but I don't say if you vote for George Bush or one way or another. And that's the separation of church and state issue."
Unfortunately, clearer Christian voices of reason like Rapp's are often overwhelmed by wealthy conservative Christian organizations that flood the TV and radio airwaves with the theme of persecution. Essentially, they believe that atheists or secularists are conspiring, with the separation of church and state as its filet knife, to carve religion from the bone of American society. In fact, persecution propaganda has so infected the consciousness of the American people that an October 2005 poll conducted by the Anti-Defamation League shows 64 percent of the nation feels religion is "under attack."
How does such an absurd, conspiratorial idea become recognized by the populace as a conventional truism? The answer: James Dobson, one of the Religious Right's most powerful zealots. Dobson is the founder of Focus on the Family, a Christian outreach organization that produces 10 monthly magazines, makes about $136 million annually and communicates with 200 million listeners through its daily radio program. In 1996, Dobson explained in a lengthy letter titled "Was America a Christian Nation?" that "secularists" have undertaken an "unprecedented campaign to secularize our society and 'de-moralize' our institutions from the top down," and are now moving on to "complete the task of immobilizing and silencing conservative Christians."
According to the religious Web site ReTakingAmerica.com, during the 2003 protest of plans to remove the Ten Commandments monument at Alabama's state judicial building, Dobson told protestors he believedstarting with the court's 1962 decision to "remov[e] prayer from the schools"that "the Supreme Court has been on a campaign to eliminate that perspective from public life." In his aforementioned letter, Dobson said the secularists plot is in part "to convince the American people that Christians, specifically those with conservative inclinations, are in violation of the Constitution whenever they advocate their views beyond the front doors of their sanctuaries." He continued, "Liberal activists would have us believe our founding fathers were terrified at the prospect of Christians participating in the political process. This led them, we're told, to protect the government from religious meddling. But no such provision appears in the Constitution or any of the foundational documents."
Dobson went on to write in the letter that the purpose of the separation of church and state, which he notes "is found only in one of Jefferson's letters," and tends to dismiss as an improper reading of the Establishment Clause, was intended to be a one-way street dealto protect "religion from governmental interference."
Dobson is frequently quoted as having said that the separation of church and state isn't substantiated by the Constitution and therefore an invention of secularists seeking to destroy Christianity. In an interview with Larry King on his September 5, 2003 show, Dobson explained his position thusly: "[The Establishment Clause] says Congress shall make no law establishing a religion or interfering with the free exercise thereof. That's the clause that all of this has come from. There is nothing in there about separation of church and state."
While the Religious Right clamors over God-less liberals and "secularist" plots, the reality is that a June 2005 Associate Press/Ipsos "Religious Attitudes" poll showed that fewer than three percent of Americans "don't believe in God." In fact, America continues to be one of the most religious countries among industrialized nations. According to the poll, which surveyed the various religious perspectives of 10 nations, the U.S. is second only to Mexico in pious inclinations, with 70 percent of Americans professing they "know God really exists" and "have no doubts about it."
The true impetus behind the Religious Right's scramble to mesh its ultra-conservative Christian theology with politics is likely to have far more to do with the fact the U.S. is becoming increasingly pluralistic as the overall population is less dominated by Protestantism. For instance, in July 2004, the National Opinion Research Center 2004 report, "The Vanishing Protestant Majority," showed that the percentage of the nation's Protestants had dropped from 60.4 percent in 1988 to 52.4 percent in 2002.
Undoubtedly aware of the rise of religions such as Islam, Hinduism, Wicca, Taoism, Native American religion, Buddhism, Sikhism, and many others, which have doubled and tripled their members between 1991 and 2001, the Religious Right is likely far less concerned with atheism than it is with the end of Christianity's spiritual hegemony in the United Statesparticularly their brand of extremist belief.
Nevertheless, the constitutional revisionism and incessant rhetoric of fundamentalists have led many Christians to misconstrue fervent efforts to uphold the Constitution's unbiased protection of the freedom of religion for all as aversion for Christianity. Nothing could be further from the case.
Not at all the monolith that well-funded ideologues like Dobson and Falwell would have you believe. With more than 30 different groups residing under the banner of Christianity including Catholic, Baptist, nondenominational, Quaker, Lutherans, Church of God, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian, it has been and continues to be aided by the First Amendment's guarantee of the separation of church and state as much if not more than any other group in the United States. Those inclined to mock such an assertion fail to realize the lurking danger Christians face as religious leaders vie for increased political power and seek to transform the U.S. into a so-called "Christian nation."
Consider the results of one of a 2003 poll conducted and reported by the Barna Research Group (BRG), an evangelical Christian research group. It stated that fewer than 10 percent of born-again Christians truly possess a biblical worldview, which BRG defined as accepting Biblically-derived absolute moral truths, and accepting these six core beliefs: "The accuracy of biblical teaching, the sinless nature of Jesus, the literal existence of Satan, the omnipotence and omniscience of God, salvation by grace alone, and the personal responsibility to evangelize." The poll showed, according to BRG, that other Christians groups were even more out of touch, with only seven percent of Protestants, two percent of "adults who attend mainline Protestant churches," and less than one percent of Catholics conforming to a 'true' biblical worldview.
In January 2004, the group audaciously reported that only 51 percent of U.S. Protestant pastors have what it deemed a true biblical worldview. While the poll proves that a plethora of diversity exists under the housing of what we call the Christian religion, organizations such as BRG, which is an arm of the evangelical Barna Group, have no trouble grading believers according to its own vision of what proper belief should be.
As James Madison put it in 1785: "Who does not see the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects." The point is that the separation of church and state protects the freedom of Christians to practice their religion according to the dictates of their own conscience their own interpretation of scripture.
The idea that separating church and state benefits the Christian religion is not a new one. In fact, one of the seminal proponents of the separation was a Christian who anticipated the founding fathers. Setting out with the specific purpose of severing religion from the workings of civil government (and vice-versa), the renowned Protestant philosopher, John Locke, in 1689, wrote "A Letter Concerning Toleration." Far from trying to perpetuate an atheistic apocalypse by vanquishing religion from society, Locke sought to overthrow the spiritual tyranny of those politicizing the realm of God and true religion. Having lived during an age when "fiery zealots" wielded the power to "persecute, torment, destroy, and kill other men upon pretence of religion," Locke argued for an end to the religious strife which harmed Christians as much as it did Jews and nonbelievers: "And upon this ground I affirm that the magistrate's power extends not to the establishing of any article of faith, or forms of worship, by the force of his laws." Locke's take on this issue is of particular importance because he is not only one of the first people to put the separation of church and state into a doctrine, but he also profoundly influenced the American founders.
According to Locke, civil society is solely concerned with the civil interests of its members, such as the procurement and preservation of physical health and property, all of which are exclusively bound to the physical world. "The business of true religion," however, explained Locke, is to regulate "men's lives according to the rules of virtue and piety," not to obtain "ecclesiastical dominion, nor to the exercising of compulsive force." Locke believed those, such as Pat Robertson, who try to convolute the very different businesses of government and religion, seek to prostitute religion in order to gain political power. And no church or religious organization, no matter how powerful or truly representative of God, has a right to issue legal dictates to or through the civil authorities. "[T]he power of civil government," Locke wrote, "is confined to the care of the things of this world, and hath nothing to do with the world to come."
While today, fundamentalists frequently demonize the principle of separation of church and state as a heathen ploy to eradicate religion, the truth is that definite believers like Locke were among the first thinkers to highlight the absurdity and pure fallacy of combining religion and government. Ironically, it was the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, widely believed to be an atheist, who wrote in 1651 that religion should have a significant role in the state, primarily as a tool of the state. Locke, on the other hand, not only advocated the separation of church and state, believing it would benefit both the state and the church, he also thought it would preserve the integrity and freedom of religion. "...I ask, what power can be given to the magistrate for the suppression of an idolatrous church, which may not, in time and place, be made use of to the ruin of an orthodox one?"
Seventeenth-century Christian Roger Williams was another noted advocate for ending the entanglement of religion and government. In 1644, more than 150 years before the deist Thomas Jefferson spoke of the "wall of separation between church and state," Williams, an English clergyman, expressed his concern over opening "a gap in the hedge, or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world." In his 2005 article in Church and State, Edwin S. Gaustad, professor of history and religious studies emeritus at the University of California, Riverside, writes that Williams "advocated the scariest political heresy of his day: namely, that a civil institution could survive without the supporting arm of the church."
Later, in the mid 1800s, French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, a Roman Catholic reporting on the rise of American democracy, wrote that he was initially shocked to learn that the "spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom" in America were not "pursuing courses diametrically opposed to each other." Upon coming into contact with "several" priests, he found "that they mainly attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country to the separation of Church and State. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America I did not meet with a single individual, of the clergy or of the laity, who was not of the same opinion upon this point."
Conservative Christians bemoan the Supreme Court's decision ruling school prayer unconstitutional, but it is interesting to note that one of the most important Christian supporters of church-state separation emphatically agreed with the ruling. Directly contradicting James Dobson's view of the decision, Martin Luther King, in 1965, told Playboy magazine that he agreed with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision ruling school mandated prayer unconstitutional. He said: "I endorse it. I think it was correct. Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in God. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally, or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right. I am strongly opposed to the efforts that have been made to nullify the decision."
It is also worth noting the powerful argument articulated by Justice Hugo Black in the 1962 decision, which King endorsed.
It is an unfortunate fact of history that when some of the very groups which had most strenuously opposed the established Church of England found themselves sufficiently in control of colonial governments in this country to write their own prayers into law, they passed laws making their own religion the official religion of their respective colonies. ...[A]s late as the time of the Revolutionary War, there were established churches in at least 8 of the 13 former colonies and established religions in at least 4 of the other 5.
...By the time of the adoption of the Constitution, our history shows that there was a widespread awareness among many Americans of the dangers of a union of Church and State. ...The Constitution was intended to avert a part of this danger by leaving the government of this country in the hands of the people rather than in the hands of the monarch.
King seemed to echo this sentiment when he stated that the church "is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool."
American history is also filled with Christian presidents who expressly defended the separation of church and state. Among the more devout Christians and former presidents, Jimmy Carter has been vocal on the church-state matter. On December 5, he told The Daily Show's Jon Stewart that he is greatly concerned about "the merger of ... religion and politics. Because I happen to be a Christian and I think my religion teaches me that you should render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's." He went on to complain that "there has been an increasing merger in this country of fundamentalism on the religious side, fundamentalism on the political side, and the two have come together."
Despite the fact that many important Christian minds have long upheld and encouraged the separation of church and state, the Religious Right has successfully planted in the minds of many Americans that one can't be both a supporter of the separation of church and state and a Christian. Take for instance the response Brevard County Lutheran Michele Paccione received when she contacted her county commissioners, complaining that she felt they had infringed on the constitutional separation of church and state when they endorsed a religious, Christ-centered youth program, which had also been promoted by the county's schools. Brevard County Commissioner Helen Voltz responded via email, writing: "What an oxymoron!!!! A Christian who believes in the separation of church & state? What??? What is your definition of a Christian? The Bible says a Christian is 'Christ-like.' Do you think for one minute that Jesus would support the separation of church & state?"
While Voltz's opinion is shared by a growing number of Christians, its simply absurd to believe that Christianity and the First Amendment don't go hand in hand. According to Rob Boston, assistant director of communications for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, Christians have always played an invaluable role in defending the wall. "Many religious people support and defend the separation of church and stateand those folks add a powerful and needed voice to this issue. For example, in Washington, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty strongly supports church-state separation, arguing that the wall of separation is the best vehicle to defend freedom of conscience for all. Over the years, Americans United has worked with Methodists, Lutherans...Presbyterians, Unitarians, Quakers, Seventh day Adventists and many others."
The latest group of Christians standing in defense of church-state separation is the newly formed Christian Alliance for Progress (CAP), which is based out of Jacksonville, Florida. Specifically purposed to save the integrity of the Christian faith and combat the extremist agenda of the Religious Right, CAP and its growing number of supporters "reaffirm a well-established American commitment to a clear separation of church and state," believing that the separation "helps ensure liberty and justice for all Americansnot just those who are like-minded."
Rev. Timothy Simpson, CAP's director of religious affairs, says his organization, which Jerry Falwell has denounced as "hardly 'Christian,'" fears the consequences of the government's growing relationship with religion. "...We don't need the government to be subsidizing us," he said, "to be giving us sweet-heart deals, special favors. That's inappropriate. Those kinds of things are what caused so much problem in other parts of the world where Christians who ruled did so unjustly, and used the name of Jesus Christ in a tyrannical fashion."
One of the best reasons for Christians to stand beside nonbelievers and religious minorities in defense of church-state separation is precisely because it protects the religion from a wholesale takeover by the radical Religious Right and the absolute molestation of Christ's message of love, justice, and brotherhood. Consider the men behind what we call the Religious Right; consider their words. After the 9/11, Jerry Falwell appeared on The 700 Club, telling viewers "the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way... helped this happen." In September 2004, Jimmy Swaggert expressed his disgust with gays by telling his congregation: "...if one ever looks at me like that I'm going to kill him and tell God he died." And on the August 22, 2005 airing of his program The 700 Club, Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition as well as head of both a television network and a university, told his audience that it'd be a lot cheaper for the U.S. to assassinate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez than start a war with him. "You know, I don't know about this doctrine of assassination, but if [Chavez] thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it." Robertson added, "I think the time has come that we exercise that ability."
Lastly, while most are familiar with Dobson's much lampooned run-in with SpongeBob Square Pants, what most don't realize is that, according to Dobson, he never had qualms with SpongeBob. Rather, Dobson was concerned with the group behind the video, "We Are Family," which used numerous popular cartoon characters in a video aimed at encouraging tolerance. Decrying the organization's "homosexual agenda," Dobson wrote in a letter appearing on his website: "Of particular significance is a so called 'Tolerance Pledge' that appears to complement the pro-homosexual propaganda found within the once available school curricula. The second paragraph of the pledge reads as follows: 'To help keep diversity a wellspring of strength and make America a better place for all, I pledge to have respect for people whose abilities, beliefs, culture, race, sexual identity or other characteristics are different from my own.'"
Proving their intent to return the Christian faith to the Taliban-esque rigidity of the dark ages, Rev. Simpson of CAP says one can quickly witness the zealotry of the Religious Right by visiting some of their websites: "If you go to the Coalition for Revival and read all of their documents, if you go to the Chalcedon Institute with R.J. Rushdoony, and you investigate the connections between the theocrats, Rushdoony's group, and the Alliance Defense Fund, which is the sort of fundamentalist ACLU, you'll see very much what these people have in mind for the ideas of government and how the laws of the nation should be understood. I mean, many of these people are for stoning gays and lesbians, they're for executing adulterers, idolaters, people who don't hold their opinions. These groups have coalesced into some larger groups, like the Coalition on Revival and Chalcedon Institute that are, frankly, quite alarming. These organizations have been there for several decades, they're not new."
Since the days of the earliest Christians, followers have always maintained a variety of beliefs and traditions. Before being crushed by the weight of the Christianized Roman Empire's imperial decrees against non-orthodox views, Christian groups like the Gnostics, Ebionites, Marcionites, and the Thomasines flourished. Today, under the protection of the separation of church and state, Christianity has prospered as never before; differences among Christian groups such as Catholics, Baptists, and Jehovah's Witnesses are accepted without rousing calls for blood shed. The reason such peace continues is because our nation has refused to allow government into the theological debate and, conversely, has refused to allow religion to govern the state. And so today, within the expansive religious title of Christian exist thousands of variationsfrom rituals to exalted tenets to personal approaches and to the nature of the faith itself. Those Christians who allow for and support the demise of the separation of church and state should prepare for the ominous but definite day when the self-proclaimed Protestant popes of the Religious Right create a new a Christian orthodoxy which calls into question their loyalty to Christ and condemns their faith as heretical.
Jeff Nall is a Central florida-based writer. He has written for various publications including IMPACT press, Z magazine, Clamor, Liberty, Freethought Today and Toward Freedom.
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