Illustration By James Mellett
The woman sitting to my left at the May 2 CARE Act Rally in the Hart Senate building turned out to be from a Christian community aid program in Phoenix, Arizona. By her wide-eyed intensity I had picked her to be of the mind-set I'd observed before in various multilevel marketing recruitment situations. But I figured we could talk anyway, so I began to ease up on the question of separation of church and state. Sure, there are many ways of looking at the topic, but I thought to at least encounter a little deference to the concept. Wrong!
"Separation of church and state," she sneered. "Where does it say that in the Constitution?" When I tried to point out the obvious historical reality of the term coming directly from Thomas Jefferson, explaining what he and the other framers of the Constitution intended, I was shouted down. "Are you going to let me speak?" she almost yelled, and resumed the brassy claim that we should demolish any such false wall.
I was at the Charity Aid, Recovery, and Empowerment Act, S. 1924, Rally to observe how the president's bold plan to fund church-operated social programs had changed since introduced into the House last year as HR 7. And it has changed—been diluted, actually, in the very real-world need to get bipartisan support–in particular that of Senator Lieberman, cosponsor of the Senate bill. And I must say that in itself the bill barely presents a threat to a workable and healthy separation of church and state. Largely gone is the bold move to openly fund faith programs.
But the intent remains and was actually celebrated at the rally. As a Christian I exult that people of faith, and so many of my faith, are active in good works and compassion. But I shudder to see an intent to encamp these "Armies of Compassion" within the confines of government and under its banner. It is not decorous for any church to seek to exchange its white garb for the party dress and common-law marriage with the by nature fickle state.
The most curious dynamic of this and other developments in the church-state religious liberty issue is that they take place against no upsurge in piety, but actually in the context of spiritual declension and a growing assortment of activists, revolutionaries and revisionists, who would hijack religion for their own calculating ends.
Later that same day I attended the twentieth anniversary celebrations of the Washington Times.
Before we heard a keynote address by owner the "Reverend" Sun Myung Moon, we were treated to testimonials from the likes of George Bush, Sr. (via video), and a truly inclusive prayer by the Reverend Fauntleroy, a preacher cum politician. And then we heard the truth as propounded by the owner of the capital's second largest daily. But before that I was again shouted down by a hater of the wall of separation.
The conversation began innocently enough. I discovered that the man sitting next to me at the banquet table is a regular columnist for the Times. He asked about Liberty, and soon I was speaking generally about the separation of church and state principle, and how it had done so much to guarantee continued religious freedom in the United States.
The voice was deeper, and thickly accented by its European origins, but I got much the same response as earlier in the day. "Where does it say that in the Constitution?" he demanded in the tone of a commissar. "Ridiculous!" I had noted how the chief editor of the Times made a point of distancing the paper from the founder, claiming complete religious neutrality. I had also noted a tendency at the event toward the triumphalist language of those religionists who are currently seeking to extract a holy Christian state from the mists of an avowedly secular establishment and project it on our times. I made the mistake of saying as much to my columnist interrogator, saying that such views were revisionist. He almost literally recoiled at the word. "That is a Communist word," he bellowed. "You are a Communist," he continued to bellow in spite of my attempt to get him to dry ground. That was pretty much the end of the conversation.
In his speech the "Reverend" Moon struck on the themes so often aback of the yearning to "tear down that wall." He spoke repeatedly of "America, a Christian country representing the second Israel." And he spun a construct that moved from a war on Communism to a U. S. role in "these last days" to establish world peace and spiritual harmony. Moon is entitled to his views in a free country, but I wonder if we are ready to enlist the armies of Christian compassion to this message from the spirit world (Moon made that claim). And any such melding of church and state will lead directly to this confusion. And might by comparison make the world of militant Islam seem one-dimensional in its simplicity.
I guess good judgment is as much a matter of timing as correct evaluation. And on that basis the June 26 ruling by the 9th Circuit Court in California might be called bad judgment.
And here is the rub to the furor over the pledge. As institutionalized as it seems, the Pledge was actually written in 1892 by Baptist minister Francis Bellamy to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' landing. He intended it to be an international peace pledge. In 1923-1924, as part of a push by the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution to have the Pledge made mandatory in schools the words "my flag" were changed to " to the flag of the United States of America." And then the big change; in 1954, after a two-year campaign begun by the Knights of Columbus, the words "under God" were added by Congress. The history makes it obvious: the Pledge is not the ancient and sacred text many imagine, and the added words came at a point not dissimilar to today. America felt threatened in its very spirituality, and after intense lobbying by religious factions adopted with high motives what first the Supreme Court and then this 9th Circuit recognized as something by its very nature a step in the wrong direction for a state.
I watched a C-SPAN replay of the June 26 Senate debate and came away very troubled at the implications.
Before passing an essentially unanimous resolution condemning the 9th Circuit decision, various Senate heavy hitters weighed in. Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, in particular, caught my attention. Often touted as the Senate expert on constitutional matters, Byrd launched into a tirade that began with the amazing non sequitur claim that under the court's logic the Declaration of Independence would be unconstitutional. Of course it predated the Constitution and made no claims beyond a statement of revolutionary action.
After some rather pejorative language to describe the judge (I assumed he meant Judge Goodwin, the author of the majority opinion, and rather curiously a Nixon/Republican appointee), he said the judge is "blackballed," "black-listed," and that he would never get the approval of the Senate for any future appointment. He then elaborated on the need to purge the system of these secular judges.
I wince at the prospect that this might be more than rhetoric.
Back in the fifties, the period when the Pledge was updated for faith, we suffered through the McCarthy witch-hunt against Communists and secularists within. And while there were a few legitimate "Commie" sympathizers, the main victims were civility and tolerance.
It's been fashionable of late for both parties to agitate the masses by desperate talk of winning federal elections in order to plant the right judges on the Supreme Court. It's troubling logic, because it ignores the protective value of judicial tenure and the recurring history of such appointees who somehow betray their appointive intent and vote otherwise (maybe by law and conscience!). I have argued against such a view that presupposes a corrupt judiciary.
Regardless of any judicial outcome to an appeal of the 9th Circuit action we seem to have crossed a certain Rubicon after the Senate hissy fit. The next day Judge Alfred T. Goodwin issued a stay on his own Court's decision. I guess we will shortly get the judges we want.