Someone named Nathan Bradfield just linked to my post about STACLU promoting David Barton’s work and to Joe Carter’s recent essay on the subject in a post that also spreads some atrocious nonsense about the founding fathers, religion and church/state separation. Nathan is one of those folks who uses inflated and breathless rhetoric; liberals are “Christophobes” who want to “obliterate anything Christian that enters the public.” You’ve heard this one many times.
David Barton of Wallbuilders provides a slightly opposing point of view. Keep in mind that David Barton has made some questionable quotes that many try to disqualify him with while ignoring the overall evidence. David admits that he has made some mistakes and the claims that he has purposefully exaggerated things is without merit. But the Christophobes cannot dismiss everything as they attempt to.
I love how he includes me as a “Christophobe.” I’m not exactly a strict separationist, of course. I have written many times that accommodationism is a legitimate interpretation of the first amendment religion clauses and I’ve opposed the strict separationists in cases like the Brittany McCombs graduation speech case as well as on issues like the constitutionality of school voucher programs. But why let little details like that get in the way of painting with the widest possible brush?
Barton is guilty of far more than just passing on a bunch of false quotes, though he certainly is guilty of that. He’s guilty of introducing a huge number of false and illogical arguments into the church/state debate. Indeed, Nathan goes on to quote one of the silliest arguments Barton makes:
Research by David Barton, founder of Wallbuilders, Inc. exposes the alleged separation of church and state for the myth that it really is. The words separation of church and state don’t appear in any official government documents authored by the founding fathers.
No kidding. The terms “checks and balances” and “separation of powers” also don’t appear in the Constitution of any “official government document” authored by the founding fathers. Does that mean those concepts are not clearly a part of the Constitution? Of course not. These phrases are descriptions of constitutional provisions and the concepts that those provisions are intended to establish and protect. And just as they used “separation of powers” and “checks and balances” to describe those provisions that divided power between the three branches of government, they used the phrase “separation of church and state” to describe the first amendment religion clauses – contrary to this immense lie:
This concept and these particular words were fabricated by an ACLU attorney named Leo Pfeffer in 1947 in the Supreme Court case of Everson versus Board of Education of Ewing Township. That liberal supreme court imposed it on the nation by a 5 to 4 vote…Many young people today are not aware of the fact that this concept is an ACLU invention, and that it is a concept our founding fathers would have been appalled at.
Well yes, many young people are unaware of that; good thing too, since it’s a blatant lie. Those particular words and the concept were fabricated by Leo Pfeffer? Seriously, how ignorant does one have to be of history to make a claim that stupid? The phrase “separation of church and state” traces originally to Roger Williams, a Christian clergyman and founder of the Rhode Island colony. It was also used by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, two of the 5 or 6 most important and influential founding fathers, as a description of the purpose of the first amendment’s religion clauses (an amendment that was written primarily by Madison himself, I might add).
Indeed, Madison argued that the separation of church and state should be so complete that it forbid even Congressional and military chaplaincies, a position that goes beyond even what the ACLU argues today. They certainly would not be “appalled” at the concept; they argued strenuously in favor of it. Now, that was not the only view among the founders. You had founders like Washington and Adams who argued that the government could and should provide general support for religion in the form of declarations of thanksgiving and days of prayer, as long as those declarations were non-coercive in nature. That is the accommodationist position.
There were also some, like Patrick Henry, who argued that the government should use tax money to support churches, but they were on the losing end of history and their ideas were dismissed (as they should be). One can reasonably argue for accommodationism or separationism, but one cannot reasonably claim, as Barton and Bradfield do, that the concept was “invented by the ACLU” in 1947 (especially since they seem blissfully unaware of the fact that the court in Everson actually upheld a state law that used tax dollars to bus students to and from a Catholic school).
The key here is this: While we Christians can claim only some founding fathers as fellow believers, the humanist secularist can claim none. Not one of the significant leaders was an atheist, much less subscribed to the modern idea of secularism and “separation of church and state.”
No, that isn’t the key to anything. Atheism was virtually unheard of at the time, but that hardly disqualifies founders like Jefferson, Madison, Paine and Franklin from being humanists or secularists. The religious beliefs of any particular founder had nothing to do with their view on separation of church and state. Many of the most outspoken advocates of strict separation at the time were devout Christians, particularly Baptists, who often found themselves jailed by the Anglicans and Puritans who ran the colonies in which they lived.
Indeed, that is how Roger Williams came to the concept. He was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for being the wrong brand of Christian, which is what spurred him to advocate the complete separation of church and state. His legacy continued at the time of the founding with prominent preachers like John Leland and Isaac Backus. So the fact is that claiming that this or that founder was a Christian tells us nothing whatsoever about their position on church and state matters.