TIME, Vol. 140, No. 10; September 7, 1992: Why the Religious Right is Wrong by Barbara E
TIME, Vol. 140, No. 10; September 7, 1992:
Why the Religious Right is Wrong
by Barbara Ehrenreich
That low moaning sound in the background just might be the Founding Fathers
protesting from beyond the grave. They have been doing it ever since the
Republicans announced a "religious war" in the name of "traditional values."
It grew several decibels louder last week when George Bush, at a breakfast of
religious leaders, scorched the Democrats for failing to mention God in their
platform and declaimed that a President need to believe in the Almighty. What
about the constitutional ban on "religious test[s]" for public office? the
Founding Fathers would want to know. What about Tom Jefferson's conviction
that it is possible for a nonbeliever to be a moral person, "find[ing]
incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its
exercise"? Even George Washington must shudder in his sleep to hear the
constant emphasis on "Judeo-Christian values." It was he who wrote, "We have
abundant reason to rejoice that in this Land...every person may here worship
God according to the dictates of his own heart."
George Bush should know better than to encourage the theocratic ambitions of
the Christian right. He has claimed--much to snide derision--that when he was
shot down during World War II and lay floating on the Pacific for four hours,
he meditated on "God and faith and the separation of church and state." But
there could be no better themes for a patriot to address in his final moments.
The "wall of separation" the Founding Fathers built between church and state
is one of the best defenses freedom has ever had. Or have we already forgotten
why the Founding Fathers put it up? They had seen enough religious intolerance
in the colonies: Quaker women were burned at the stake in Puritan
Massachusetts; Virginians could be jailed for "denying" the Bible's authority.
They knew Europe had terribly disfigured itself in a religious war recalled
now only by its duration--30 years. No wonder John Adams once described the
Judeo-Christian tradition as "the most bloody religion that ever existed," and
that the Founding Fathers took such pains to keep the hand that holds the
musket separate from the one that carries the cross.
There was another reason for the separation of church and state, which no
amount of pious ranting can expunge: not all the Founding Fathers believed in
the same God, or in any God at all. Yes, the Declaration of Independence
refers to a deity, but only the most generic terms--"Nature's God," the
"Creator," "Providence"--calculated not to offend the doubters and deists (who
believed God had designed the universe, then left it to nature to run).
Jefferson was a reknowned doubter, urging his nephew to "question with
boldness even the existence of a God." John Adams was at least a skeptic, as
were of course the revolutionary firebrands Tom Paine and Ethan Allen.
Naturally, they designed a republic in which they themselves would have a
For this, today's Republicans should be far more grateful than they are. Abe
Lincoln, the patriarch of their party, did not, according to his law partner
of 22 years, believe in a personal God, and refused to join a church, stating
"When you show me a church based on the Golden Rule as its only creed, then I
will unite with it." Ulysses S. Grant, another Republican, exhorted his
countrymen to "Keep the church and state forever separate" and strongly
opposed the use of any public money to support parochial schools--as proposed
in the 1992 Republican platform.
Yet another reason argues for the separation of church and state. If the
Founding Fathers had one overarching aim, it was to limit the power not of the
churches but of the state. They had seen the abuses of kings who claimed to
rule with divine approval, from Henry VIII, who arbitrarily declared himself
head of the Church of England, to the high-handed George III. They were deeply
concerned, as Adams wrote, that "government shall be considered as having in
it nothing more mysterious or divine than other arts or sciences."
The government the Founding Fathers designed could levy taxes and raise an
army, but it could not do these or any other things in the name of a Higher
Power. We salute our flag, not kneel before it; we pay taxes, not tithes. By
stripping government of supernatural authority, the Founding Fathers created a
zone of freedom around each individual human conscience--or, for that matter,
religious sect. They demystified government and reduced it to something within
the reach of human comprehension, protest and change. Surely, the Republicans,
committed as they are to "limited government," ought to honor the secular
spirit that has limited our government from the moment of its birth.
The same fear of government tyranny kept the Founding Fathers from prescribing
anything like "family values." Homosexuality was not unknown 200 years ago;
nor was abortion. But these were matters, like religion, that the founders
left to individual conscience. If there was one thing they did believe in, to
a man, it was the power of the individual, informed by reason, to decide
things for him--or her--self.
Over the years, there have been repeated efforts to invest the U.S. government
with the cachet of divine authority. "In God We Trust" was first stamped on
currency in the 1860's. "Under God" was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance
during the McCarthyist 1950s. George Bush campaigned in 1988 to have the flag
treated like a sacred object. And perhaps every revolution is doomed to be
betrayed, sooner or later, by its progeny. It only adds insult to injury,
though, when the betrayal is dressed up in the guise of "traditional values."
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