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Americans United for Separation of Church and State
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A Critique of David Barton's "America's Godly Heritage"
written by the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs

A few years ago David Barton released a tape entitled "America's Godly Heritage" in which he argues that America is a "Christian Nation," legally and historically. The Baptist Joint Committee, representing some eleven Baptist denominations, disputed it. Since that time Barton has revised some of his materials, but the arguments here are often those used by the Religious Right and need to be examined.

Barton asserts that, through our dedication to the principle of church-state separation, we have systematically ruled 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 well-oiled, rapid-fire sentences have just enough ring of truth to make him credible to a large number of people. However, the presentation is laced with exaggerations, half-truths, and misstatements of fact, and his citation to supporting research is scant at best and non-existent in other places.

This is a short critique of some of Mr. Barton's major points.

1. Barton claims that 52 of the 55 signers of the Constitution were "orthodox evangelical Christians."

Barton 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)

Much has been made of Benjamin Franklin's suggestion that the Convention open its morning sessions with prayer. But his motion was turned down. 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. 1, p. 452.)

While there can be little doubt that Christian values shaped the thinking of the Founders to a significant extent, it is wrong to jump to the conclusion that the Founders were almost all "orthodox evangelical 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. This even if Barton's point were true, it doesn't compel the conclusion that we should privilege Christianity in any legal or constitutional sense.

2. Barton tells a long story about George Washington during the French and Indian War that he says was in "every textbook" during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The story is about how George Washington's clothing was riddled with bullets but he was miraculously saved. He allegedly prayed after the battle and wrote a letter claiming God's protection of him during battle. Barton says that these kinds of stories are excluded from our textbooks today.

There are many reasons why one might not want to include that story in an American history textbook, but the possibility of violating the Constitution is not one of them. Clearly, in the course of teaching "about religion," or teaching history for that matter, there is no problem talking about the incident or the fact that Washington prayed or even reading his letter. As a matter of educational strategy, however, it is at least debatable whether this story is of sufficient importance to warrant inclusion in the curriculum.

3. Barton makes much from a statement attributed to John Quincy Adams to the effect that the principles of Christianity and civil government form an "indissoluble bond."

Again, it cannot seriously be disputed that most of the Founders thought 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; see also William Lee Miller, The First Liberty, pp. 245-246.) 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 judgement.

Again, it cannot seriously be disputed that most of the Founders thought 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; see also William Lee Miller, The First Liberty, pp. 245-246.) 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 judgement.

4. Barton lauds the use of the New England Primer (1690), which he says was studied by all the Founding Fathers." He laments the fact that public school textbooks today do not contain the explicitly sectarian references and teachings that the New England Primer had.

For a century and a half after its first publication, of course, there were no public schools. There was no Bill of Rights until 1792-- over 100 years after the Primer's publication. During the Primer's remaining life, the Bill of Rights had not been applied to the states. Thus, its usage in colonial times does not argue for its usage today.

Also, just because the Founders were instructed in a certain way as children does not rule out the possibility that they would want to exclude such sectarian religious instruction from state-supported schools in their new nation. Nevertheless, the New England Primer can be "studied about" in our history classes today to the extent that it was a widely used textbook that shaped our culture.

5. Barton says that John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States, desired that we should "select and prefer Christians" for public office.

There are many things wrong with trying to leverage this statement into something more meaningful than it really is. First, 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 the 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 1. p. 497.)

John Jay 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 from 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?

6. 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 too.

Washington 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.

For example, in response to concerns expressed by the United Baptist Churches of Virginia about what they saw as the threat of the Federal government to religious liberty, Washington wrote the following:

[I]f I could now conceive that the general government night 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. p. 495.)

Washington expresses a similar sentiment in a letter to another religious group, this time a Jewish congregation:

All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. ... [T]he Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. (Stokes, supra. p. 862.)

Thus, while Washington (and many of the other Founders, as we have already noted) may have recognized the benefits of religion for the state, he clearly believed persons religious preferences were a matter of individual choice in which the government should not interfere.

7. Barton cites a study by the University of Houston political science professors who assembled 15,000 writings of the Founders. The researchers somehow selected 3,154 that they "felt had a significant impact." Once these were studied, according to Barton, the researchers concluded that 34 percent of all the quotes of the Founders were from the Bible and another 60 percent quoted men who "used the Bible," e.g., Blackstone, Montesquieu, and John Locke. From this, Barton boldly concludes: "94 percent of all quotes of the Founders are based on the Bible."

This begs a dozen questions. How did the researchers select the 15,000 writings, and how did they cull out 3,154? What were the criteria? Does a short biblical allusion in a length document qualify the whole document as a part of the "34 percent"? Does the 60 percent figure only include direct quotes or does it include any quote of a person who was felt to have been generally influenced by Christianity? Time and time again Barton leaps to the categorical conclusion that "94 percent of the quotes of all the Founders are based on the Bible"-- a good example of the kind of exaggeration and overstatement that he engages in repeatedly.

8. Barton sees express Biblical support for our tripartite system of government. He says that the doctrine of separation of powers comes "directly out of the Bible," citing Isaiah 33:22: "For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler, the Lord is our king; he will save us." He also references Jeremiah 17.

We find nothing making this connection. None of the Founders referenced those passages in their writings on the separation of powers. The only similarity is that in the Isaiahic "salvation oracle," the writer refers to the Lord in three different ways. If anything, these references invoke the concept of monarchy-- an idea expressly rejected by the Framers. Moreover, one can read Jeremiah 17 without seeing any connection at all, and we find none in the research. Most scholarship attributes the genesis of the separation of powers to Montesquieu and Locke.

9. Mr. 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 proves this point.

Holy 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 of our undisputed religious roots from pre-Constitutional documents, historical practice, colonial charters and the like.

There can be not doubt that we are a "religious people." Even Justice William O. Douglas, a thorough-going separationist, recognized this fact. Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 313 (1952). However, that is not 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. Moreover, the Constitution, which is our civil compact, is decidedly non-sectarian and, as we have noted, 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. Therefore, Barton's citation of it fails to prove his point.

10. Barton spends a great deal of time lambasting the concept of church-state separation. He makes numerous points which will be handled individually.

A. Church-state separation is not in the Constitution.

Of course, neither the words "church-state separation" nor "wall of separation" appear in the Constitution. That does not mean Barton' assertion is correct. The Constitution does not specifically mention "separation of powers" or "the right to a fair trial" either, but who would deny the constitution 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.

Barton is absolutely wrong. First, 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. Also, the word "respecting", in reference to an establishment of religion, indicates how broadly the Founders intended the government's non-involvement in religion to be extended. As Justice Stevens noted in Allegheny Country v. ACLU, 109 S.Ct. 3086, 3130 (1989):

"[R]especting" means concerning or with reference to. But it also means with respect-- that is "reverence," "good-will," "regard" to. Taking into account this richer meaning, the Establishment Clause, in banning laws that concern religion, especially prohibits those that pay homage to religion.

Moreover, Barton's citing of the Senate amendments allowing the government non-preferential support of religion cuts against, not for, his argument. Those amendments do show that the Founders considered adopting such non-preferential ideas into the Constitution. However, those amendments were defeated and the language we have now, which calls for governmental neutrality towards religion, neither favoring a specific sect nor religion in general, was adopted. 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, 1985-86.)

Unless 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-- then 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.

A reading of the entire letter belies any suggestion that Thomas Jefferson thought the wall was "one directional". 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 Williams' reference 150 years earlier to the "hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the 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 than that, he thought this wall was mandated by the very principles of Christianity. To that end, he wrote:

All civil states with their officers of justice, in their respective constitutions and administrations, are ... essentially civil, and therefore not judges, governors, or defenders of the Spiritual, or Christian, State and worship ... An enforced uniformity of religion throughout a nation or civil state confounds the principles of Christianity and civility, and that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. (Stokes, supra, p. 199.)

Thus, Williams and Jefferson understood the benefits to both the church and state of keeping those entities separate and distinct.

D. Barton points to some poorly described effort in 1853 to petition Congress to separate "Christian principles from American government" and to exclude chaplains from the military. He says that the judiciary committees investigated the matter for a year and then issued a report basically saying that Christianity cannot be limited, again pointing to our religious roots.

Clearly, Christian principles cannot (and should not) be excluded from American government; but Christianity, or any religion, cannot constitutionally be privileged over other expressions of religion or irreligion.

Another issue, however, that reveals more concretely the place of Christianity in government is the Sunday mail controversy of the early 1800s. When Congress passed an act in 1825 requiring post offices to handle mail on Sundays, many people protested that it violated the Christian principle of observing the Sabbath as a day of rest. Debate raged on the subject until 1829, when the Senate committee handling the matter issued its report. In it, Senator Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky made the following remarks:

It is not the legitimate province of the Legislature to determine what religion is true, or what is false. Our Government is a civil and not a religious institution. Our constitution recognizes in every person the right to choose his own religion, and to enjoy it freely, without molestation. ... It is the settled conviction of the committee ... to adhere strictly to the spirit of the constitution, which regards the General Government in no other light than that of a civil institution, wholly destitute of religious authority. (Stokes, Vol II, pp. 15-16.)

Furthermore, Johnson went on to enumerate ways that Christians could assert their views on this matter outside of relying on the government to favor Christian principles. These included living lives of holiness, aiding those in need, and teaching others about the gospel of Jesus. Johnson said that the government would, in turn, guarantee their freedom to do such, and that this "[Christian] moral influence will then do infinitely more to advance the true interests of religion than any measures which they may call on Congress to enact..." (Stokes, Vol II, p. 17.)

What these remarks, and more generally the mail controversy, serve to illustrate is that it never was the purpose of the government to create laws which intentionally favor the principles of one religion over another, or over irreligion. That is as true today as it was even before Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams for the presidency in 1800 with one of his planks being "freedom of religion and opposition to all manoeuvres to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another." (Stokes, Vol I, p. 800.) The government must remain neutral.

E. Barton cites Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1878), for the proposition that the Supreme Court has recognized Jefferson's "wall" as being "one-directional".

This is 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 position.

F. Barton 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.

Justice Hugo Black, a Baptist Sunday School teacher from Alabama, wrote the majority opinion. The case involved a challenge to the right of government to reimburse 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 "Virginia Bill For Religious Liberty" (fn. 13); and Reynolds v. United States.

11. 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 as "bland" prayer. Barton is also critical of Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963), which ruled unconstitutional state-sponsored devotional Bible reading in classes.

First, 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. The puny god of civil religion may have been thrown out, but the Almighty God of the Universe has not. How presumptuous it is to say that we have 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.

Criticism 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 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.

12. Barton goes to great lengths to show that virtually all of our social ills over the past 30 years were caused by the prayer and Bible-reading decisions in 1962-63. He lays at the feed of these decisions the increase in divorce, decline of SAT scores, rampant crime, and so on.

One wonders how the exclusion of routine-- indeed, "bland"-- prayers from schools could have such disastrous consequences. Of course, there is no demonstrable 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:

Why did everything go wrong when everything went wrong? ... I think 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, teen-age 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.)

The problems that we face as a society are due to a variety of complicated socio-economic factors. To blame the lack of prayer in school is simplistic. For example, SAT scores have fallen but that decline is better explained by the fact that more students from a wider variety of socio-economic backgrounds are taking the test than that the decline is in any way attributable to the elimination of state-sponsored religious exercises. Moreover, if 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 1962. 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.

Our 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 lay all the problems off on the schools and the Court's prayer decisions thirty years ago is a pure fantasy at best and base demagoguery at worst.

13. 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 three percent who profess to be atheists.

Part of what Barton says here is correct. Church-state separation does not require the divorcement of religion from politics. Religious people have a right to engage in politics and 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.

Something that seems to pervade off of Barton's thinking is a certain dualism which effectively denies the concept of neutrality on the part of government. He seems to suggest that if government is not promoting his brand of religion, it is necessarily promoting the opposite. If Christians don't take over the schools, Barton implies, the Satanists will, and on and on. However, the fact is schools 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 vast middle ground of neutrality in which the schools can legitimately operate that neither promotes nor inhibits religion. To refuse to teach religion is not the same thing as promoting the opposite.

Finally, Barton seems to suggest that since the majority of Americans are Christians, or at least religious people, they should be able to accomplish their will through government and politics. Those who disagree should, at best, be tolerated or, at worst, discriminated against.

This is not at all what our Founders intended or what our Constitution says. The religion clauses in the First Amendment are, by definition, "counter-majoritarian." The Constitution ensures the will of the majority, the Bill of Rights protects the rights of the minority. Justice Jackson said it well more than 50 years ago in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (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 official 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.


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