On July 4, Americans will take a day to honor our Founding Fathers, who gave birth to the first nation dedicated to individual freedom. This day comes, unfortunately, at a moment when our politicians are united in their venomous attacks on a crucial element of the Founders’ legacy: the separation of church and state.
A few days ago, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck the phrase “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance widely used in public schools. The court ruled, correctly, that the inclusion of this phrase in a declaration of patriotism used to start the day in government-run schools constitutes a government endorsement of religion. Yet President Bush dismissed the decision as “ridiculous,” while Democratic leader Tom Daschle described it as “just nuts.” Senator John Kerry, D-Mass., added to this sophisticated symposium on constitutional law, calling the decision “half-assed.”
When Bush got around to explaining his reasoning, things only got worse. He told reporters that the inclusion of God in the Pledge of Allegiance — added 62 years after the pledge was first written — was necessary to affirm “our nation’s close relationship with the Almighty.” He repeatedly insisted that “our rights come from God,” attributing this view to the Declaration of Independence.
The phrase “under God” in a school-sponsored ritual is a very small breach of the separation of church and state. But the arguments offered by Bush are signals of a much larger breach in the making. The insistence that our rights come from God implies that those who don’t believe in God have no rights — an implication made explicit by the elder President Bush back in 1990, when he declared that he didn’t think atheists were full citizens of the United States.
More ominous, however, is the idea that the government should concern itself with the nation’s relationship with God — precisely the view embraced by our enemies in the current War on Terrorism. The people’s relationship with almighty Allah is the main concern of the Iranian mullahs and the Saudi religious police.
What is most obscene is the fact that Bush promotes this view by citing the Declaration of Independence.
The Declaration attributes our rights, not just to God but to “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Most of the Founders belonged to a school of thought called “Deism,” which held that God created the world and then butted out — leaving the universe to operate according to natural laws. In the scientific age of the 18th-century Enlightenment, the belief in natural laws discovered by reason was the real foundation of the conviction that men had rights — most especially the right to freedom of thought.
If you have any doubts, ask the author of the document Bush is quoting. Thomas Jefferson defended freedom of thought in terms that would make our current president blanch. He once advised his nephew: “Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.” Jefferson wrote the new nation’s first guarantee of freedom of thought, the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, which specifically banned any religious test as a precondition for holding public office. He explained, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are 20 gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
Jefferson knew that the protection of the citizens’ freedom — not the monitoring of their “relationship with the Almighty” — is the only proper concern of government. It was he who coined the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state.”
If that isn’t conclusive enough, Jefferson stated his views, not just with paper and ink, but with bricks and mortar. When he designed the campus of the University of Virginia, to which he devoted the last decades of his life, he conspicuously omitted the one building that was the architectural centerpiece of every other university: a church. As a publicly funded school, he argued, it was improper for the university to get involved in the realm of religion. He refused to allow the school even to have a professorship in Divinity. Jefferson believed that state-funded education must remain scrupulously secular.
So when President Bush declares his desire to keep God in the public square, remember that he is not doing it the name of patriotism and the Declaration of Independence. He is doing it with Islamic theocrats as his natural allies — and in defiance of America’s Founders.