June 18, 1996
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Barton, in his taped presentation called America’s Godly Heritage, peddles the
proposition that America is a “Christian Nation,” legally and
historically. He also asserts that the
principle of church-state separation, while not in the Constitution, has
systematically been used to rule religion out of the public arena, particularly
the public school system. This is not a
new argument, but Barton is especially slick in his presentation. His presentation has just enough ring of
truth to make him credible to many people.
It is, however, laced with exaggerations, half- truths, and
misstatements of fact. His citation to
supporting research is scant at best and at times non-existent.
booklet contains a short critique of some of the major points that Mr. Barton
claims that 52 of the 55 signers of the Constitution were “orthodox” Christians
and many were “evangelical Christians.”
does not cite any authority to support this assertion. Indeed, the weight of scholarly opinion is
to the contrary. For example, Professor
Clinton Rossiter has written:
“Although it had its share
of strenuous Christians... the
gathering at Philadelphia was largely made up of men in whom the old fires were
under control or had even flickered out.
Most were nominally members of one of the traditional churches in their
part of the country.. and most were men
who could take their religion or leave it alone. Although no one in this sober gathering would have dreamed of
invoking the Goddess of Reason, neither would anyone have dared to proclaim his
opinions had the support of the God of Abraham and Paul. The Convention of 1787 was highly
rationalist and even secular in spirit.”
(Clinton Rossiter, 1787; The
Grand Convention, pp. 147-148.)
been made of Benjamin Franklin’s suggestion that the Convention open its
morning sessions with prayer. His
motion was turned down, however, and not again taken up. Franklin himself noted that “with the
exception of 3 or 4, most thought prayers unnecessary.” (Ferrand, Records of the Federal
Convention of 1787, rev. ed., Vol.
there can be little doubt that Christian values shaped the thinking of the
Founders, it is wrong to jump to the conclusion that the Founders were almost
all orthodox evangelicals Christians.
Even though many of the Founders applauded religion for its utility-
believing religion was good for the country- they also argued vigorously for
voluntary religion and complete religious freedom. Thus, even if Barton’s point were true, it does not compel the
conclusion that we should privilege Christianity in any legal or constitutional
Barton quotes at length from George Washington’s Farewell Address
extolling the salutary effect that religion has on politics and civil
government. Barton says we have ruled
the study of Washington’s Farewell Address out of the public schools.
no doubt firmly believed that religion is good for government. And there is nothing wrong with studying his
Farewell Address in the public school system.
But other statements of Washington should also be studied, to give a
more complete picture of what Washington truly believed. Washington wrote the following:
“If I could now conceive
that the general government might ever be so administered as to render the
liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded, that no one would
be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors
of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution... [E]very man, conducting himself as a good
citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought
to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own
conscience.” (Stokes, supra,
Thus, while Washington may
have recognized the benefits of religion for the state, he also believed
persons’ religious preferences were a matter of individual, voluntary choice in
which the government should not interfere.
Barton makes much from a statement attributed to John Quincy Adams to
the effect that the principles of Christianity and civil government form an
the Founders did believe that religion was good for the country. Martin Marty talks about how the Founders
recognized the “utility” of religion much like other public utilities (e.g.,
waterworks, gasworks, etc.) (Martin E.
Marty, “The Church in Tension,” Speech to 20th National Religious
Liberty Conference, Baptist Joint Committee, Oct. 7, 1986.) Even today
public officials try to baptize their political aims in the waters of sacred
approval. Of course, this ignores the
fact that true Christianity serves as much a prophetic function as a pastoral
one. Christianity does not exist to
prop up government or a particular regime but to critique it and call it to
case, one wonders whether Barton really wants to embrace John Quincy
Adams. According to John McCollister,
“some members of the organized church branded [Adams] an atheist” and there was
no evidence that the Bible was used at the time he took the oath of
office. His church attendance was
irregular at times. He, like his
father, was a Unitarian. (John
McCollister, So Help Me God, pp.
Barton says that John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States,
desired that we should “select and prefer Christians” for office.
are many problems with trying to leverage this statement into something more
than it really is. While voters can
choose their candidates for any reason they deem fit, the Constitution
explicitly disallows any official religious test for public office (Article
VI). In fact, this is the only place
that the Constitution even mentions religion.
George Washington himself, in a personal letter to a church in
Baltimore, penned words which dispute Jay’s ideas: “...a man’s religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of
the Laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining and holding the highest
offices that are known in the United States.”
(Anson Phelps Stokes, Church and State in the United States,
Vol. I, p. 497.)
remained Chief Justice for only six years and then left to be the governor of
New York. Jay was an anti-Catholic
bigot and, while governor, led an unsuccessful movement to banish Catholics
form New York. (Thomas J. Curry, The
First Freedoms, p. 162.) Apparently, Jay did not even believe in religious
toleration, let alone full-blown religious freedom. Is this the kind of approach we want to take in our pluralistic
society today? Can we really hold up Jay’s
notions of church-state relations as an ideal?
Barton cites the Church of the Holy Trinity v.
United States, 143 U.S. 457
(1892), for the proposition that this is “emphatically a Christian nation.” He says Justice Brewer cites 87 precedents
to prove this point.
Trinity involved the legality of a contract to hire a minister from England
under an act of Congress limiting immigration.
The statement about a “Christian nation” is dicta- that is, it is a
gratuitous statement that is not essential to the Court’s holding. The Court had already decided the issue
before venturing its opinion as to the religious character of the country. The so- called “87 precedents” were not case
decisions, but mainly examples taken from pre-Constitutional documents,
historical practice, colonial charters and the like which reveal our undisputed
can be no doubt that we are a “religious people.” Even Justice William O.
Douglas, a thoroughgoing separationist, recognized the fact. Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 313 (1952). That is not, however, the same thing as declaring that
Christianity has been legally privileged or established to the exclusion of
other religions or to the exclusion of irreligion. The Constitution, which is our civil compact, is decidedly
nonsectarian and mentions religion only to disallow religious tests for public
office. To the degree that Brewer’s
opinion can be read to support a “Christian nation” thesis, it is a legal
anomaly that has been cited by the Court only once.
himself later clarified his position.
In a book published in 1905, he says that the U.S. is “Christian” in that many of its
traditions are rooted in Christianity-- not that Christianity should receive
Barton spends a great deal of time lambasting the concept of
A. Church-state separation is not in the
course, neither the words “church-state separation” nor “wall of separation”
appear in the Constitution. That does
not mean Barton’s position is correct.
The Constitution does not specifically mention “separation of powers” or
“the right to a fair trial” either, but who would deny the constitutional
status of those concepts? “Church-state
separation” is a metaphor for what certainly was and is the spirit of the First
Amendment’s religion clauses – government is to be neutral toward religion to
the end of ensuring religious liberty.
B. Barton quotes the First Amendment as saying
“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.” He also goes on to talk about the amendments
that were rejected primarily by the Senate which, on their face, would have
allowed the government to support religion on a non-preferential basis. He says this shows the Founder’s true intent
behind the First Amendment.
is absolutely wrong. First of all, the
phrase is not “the” establishment of religion, but “an” establishment of
religion. It is not sufficient for the
government to avoid establishing one particular religion; it may not establish any religion. Moreover the Founders banned laws even
“respecting” an establishment of religion, indicating how broadly they intended
the government’s non-involvement in religion to be extended.
citing of the Senate amendments allowing non-preferential support of religion
cuts against his argument, not in favor of it.
Those amendments do show that the Founders considered adopting such
non-preferential ideas into the Constitution.
However, they then defeated those amendments and deliberately adopted
the language we have now which calls for governmental neutrality towards
religion, neither favoring a specific sect nor religion in general. An argument such as Barton’s “requires a
premise that the Framers were extraordinarily bad drafters,” as Douglas Laycock
of the University of Texas Law School has written. “Nonpreferential Aid to Religion: A False Claim About Original Intent,” 27 Wm-Mary L. Rev. 875
we are willing to accept this ludicrous assertion--that the Framers really
intended the government to non-preferentially support religion, but then voted
down amendments to that effect—we must conclude that the First Amendment says
precisely what the Framers meant: the
government should remain neutral towards religion.
C. Barton mentions church-state separation as
flowing from Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Connecticut Baptist
Association. He asserts that later in
the letter Jefferson made it clear that he wanted only a “one directional wall”
to prevent the government from harming religion, not to prevent religion from
capturing the government.
reading of the entire letter belies any suggestion that Thomas Jefferson
thought it was “one directional.” There
is absolutely nothing in the letter even to hint that that is the case. Indeed, to the degree that Jefferson’s
notion was one-directional, most scholars would argue that he was more
concerned with the church harming the state than vice versa. (Laurence H. Tribe, American Constitutional Law, p. 1159.) Of course, Barton completely ignores Roger William’s
reference 150 years earlier to the “hedge or wall of separation between the
garden of church and the wilderness of the world.” (Perry Miller, Roger Williams: His Contribution to the American Tradition, p. 89.) It is
clear that Williams, a Baptist pioneer, saw the advantage to the church of a
clear boundary erected between itself and the state. More then that, he thought this wall was mandated by the very
principles of Christianity. To that
end, he wrote:
“All civil state with
officers of justice, in their respective constitutions and administrations,
are... essentially civil, and therefore
not judges, governors, or defenders of Spiritual, or Christian, State and
worship... An enforced uniformity of
religion throughout a nation or civil state confounds the civil and religious,
denies the principles of Christianity and civility, and that Jesus Christ is
come in the flesh.” (Stokes, supra,
Thus, Williams and
Jefferson understood the benefits to both the church and state of keeping those
two entities separate and distinct.
D. Barton cities Reynolds v. United States,
98 U.S. 45 (1878), for the proposition
that the Supreme Court has recognized Jefferson’s “wall” as being
simply not the case. Reynolds quotes
Jefferson and then proceeds to ensconce Jefferson’s wall metaphor into American
Jurisprudence. The court observes,
“Coming as this does from an acknowledged leader of the advocates of the
measure, it may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope
and effect of the amendment thus secured.”
Id. at 164. Again, if anything,
Barton’s citation to Reynolds disputes, rather than supports, his
criticizes the Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education, 330
U.S. 1 (1947), for adopting a
separationist position without quoting the Founders and in disregard of what
Barton thinks the Founders intended.
Hugo Black, a Baptist who had taught Sunday school in Alabama, wrote the
majority opinion. The case involved a
challenge to the right of government to reimburse the parents of parochial
school students for transportation costs.
For all of the Court’s strong separationist language, it voted (5-4) to
allow New Jersey to fund the transportation costs under the so-called “student
benefit” theory. However, the Court was
unanimous in agreeing with Justice Black’s statement of the law. Justice Black cited plenty of authority for
his decision--the writings of James Madison (fn. 11), including his “memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious
Assessments”; Jefferson’s “Bill For
Establishing Religious Liberty” (fn. 13);
and Reynolds v. United States.
Barton next criticizes Engel v.
Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962),
where the Court struck down use of the New York Regents’ prayer in public
classrooms. He cannot understand why
anyone would object to such a “bland” prayer.
is also critical of Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963), which ruled unconstitutional
state- sponsored devotional Bible reading in classes.
one wonders why any person with serious Christian convictions would want the
state- instead of the church or individual Christians- composing a prayer at
all, particularly a “bland” prayer that offends no one and says very little,
The Engel decision did not throw God out of the classroom or outlaw
prayer. They puny god of civil religion
may have been thrown out, but the Almighty God of the Universe has not. It is presumptuous to say that anyone has
the power to exclude God from any realm of our existence. Furthermore, it is only state-sponsored
prayer that is prohibited. Students are
absolutely free- in the classroom, in the lunchroom, or on the playing field,-
to pray to God whenever they see fit.
Barton’s opposition to the classroom prayer case shows how far on the
radical fringe he really is. Most conservative
Christian groups in the country today (e.g., Southern Baptist Convention
Christian Life Commission, National Association of Evangelicals, Christian
Legal Society, etc.) do not disagree with the Engel decision.
of the Schempp case is likewise unfounded.
The court simply ruled out state- sponsored Bible reading. It did not prevent students from bringing
their Bibles to class or even reading their Bibles during free periods. Bibles properly can be included in school
libraries, and the study of the Bible as literature is certainly not
prohibited. Indeed Justice Clark, in
his majority opinion in Schempp, said:
“[I]t might well be said
that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or
the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of
civilization. It certainly may be said
that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that
such a study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of
a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First
Amendment. Id. at 225.”
Thus, while state-sponsored
religious exercises have been ruled out, there is nothing to prevent studying
the Bible or teaching “about” religion across the board.
Barton claims that virtually all of or social ills over the past 30
years were cause by the prayer and Bible-reading decisions in 1962-63. He lays at the feet of these decisions the
increase in divorce, decline of SAT scores and rampant crime.
wonders how the exclusion of routine-- indeed, “bland” -- prayers form schools
could have such disastrous consequences.
Of course, there is no connection between the elimination of
state-sponsored religion in public schools and the described social ills. This is a classic “after this, therefore
because of this” logical fallacy. Just
because one event follows another in time sequence does not mean that the
latter caused the former. Martin Marty,
in a tongue-in-cheek critique of this kind of thinking, has said:
everything go wrong when everything went wrong?... I think that the divorce rate rose shortly after the invention of
the electronic church. Check the
coincidence of dates. When born-again
celebrities started writing born- again autobiographies, teenage pregnancy
increased; and when fundamentalists
started writing sex manuals, the Vietnam War accelerated. Didn’t you notice the cause-and-effect
relation?” (Marty, The Christian Century, September 10-17, 1980.)
problems that we face as a society are due to a variety of complicated
socioeconomic factors. To try to blame
the lack of prayer in school is simplistic.
The whole thing needs to be put in perspective. For example, SAT scores have fallen but that
decline is better explained by the fact that more students form a wider variety
of socioeconomic backgrounds are taking the test than that the decline is in
any way attributable to the elimination of state-sponsored religious
exercises. Moreover, is one is going to
engage in this kind of thinking, one also ought to point out some of the
improvements that have been made since 19762.
Life-expectancy has increased, as well as the average standard of
living; great strides have been made in
medical science, space travel and computer technology—to name a few.
country has many problems and many of our institutions must share some of the
blame: government, churches, families
and, yes, the public schools. But to
attribute all the problems on the schools and the Court’s prayer decisions
thirty years ago is a pure fantasy at best and base demagoguery at worst.
Barton concludes by calling upon his listeners to become involved in
politics. He says that if Christians
don’t influence the government, someone else will. He also talks about being “robbed” by the atheists.
what Barton says here is correct.
Church-state separation does not require the divorcement of religion
form politics. Religious people have
just as much right to engage in politics and to try to influence public policy
by religious, even Christian values.
However, any foray into politics with a decidedly sectarian agenda or a
“God is on our side” mentality ought to be tempered with a healthy dose of
humility. The Kingdom of God cannot be
equated with any political party;
religious people of good faith can differ on a number of issues.
that pervades all of Barton’s thinking is a certain dualism which effectively
denies the ability of government to remain neutral in matters of religion, He
seems to suggest that if government is not promoting his brand of religion, it
is necessarily promoting the opposite.
If Christian don’t take over the schools, Barton implies, the Satanists
will, and on and on.
cannot teach the opposite of Christianity or actively debunk belief in God any
more than they can promote religion.
That, too, would be unconstitutional.
But there is a middle ground of neutrality in which the schools
legitimately can operate that neither promotes nor inhibits religion. To refuse to indoctrinate Christianity is not
the same thing as promoting its opposite.
Barton suggests that since the majority of Americans are Christians, or at
least religious people, they should be able to use the government to privilege
their religious stance. Those who
disagree should, at best, be tolerated or, at worst, discriminated
not at all what our Founders intended or what our Constitution says. The religion clauses in the First Amendment
to the Bill of Rights are, by definition, “counter-majoritarian.” The Constitution ensures the will of the
majority. Justice Jackson said it well
more than 50 years ago in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette,
319 U.S. 624, 638 (1943):
The very purpose of a Bill
of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political
controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to
establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One’s right to life, liberty, and property,
to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other
fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.