Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Farah and the Founding Fathers

Joseph Farah, grand poobah of the Worldnutdaily, has written yet another ignorant screed about separation of church and state. But let me first acknowledge a partially correct statement on Farah’s part. He is responding to an entirely too broad statement by Pete Stark, the California congressman who recently came out of the atheist closet.

In making his “brave” comments, Stark explained that he is “a Unitarian who does not believe in a Supreme Being.” The 75-year-old old member of Congress then added: “Like our nation’s founders, I strongly support the separation of church and state. I look forward to working with the Secular Coalition to stop the promotion of narrow religious beliefs in science, marriage contracts, the military and the provision of social services.”

When I hear statements like this, from people who have been around the block a time or two, I have to wonder if the man is knowingly lying in support of his perverted beliefs or whether he is hopelessly ignorant of history.

There is a reasonable criticism of Stark’s statement, which I will make here: by today’s standards, most of our founding fathers certainly did not support separation of church and state. Most of them, in fact, would be labeled accomodationists today, not separationists. Only a few of them were strict separationists, and even those who were sometimes faltered. James Madison was the staunchest separationist, but while in office even he issued religious proclamations under political pressure to do so, something he later regretted very much.

Washington and Adams both issued such proclamations routinely, though neither was an orthodox Christian, and they were among the more liberal founders on such matters (though not as liberal as Jefferson and Madison). And the reality is that very few of the founding fathers believed that non-coercive support for religion, at least a sort of lowest common denominator civic religion, was a violation of the first amendment, so they certainly would not be called strong supporters of church/state separation today. Stark is, at the very least, guilty of overstating things significantly.

However, Farah is guilty of far worse in his response. While Stark is speaking in a general way, Farah perpetuates multiple falsehoods and makes statements about specific founding fathers that are easily shown to be nonsense. For instance:

Let me put it this way: None of America’s founding fathers supported – strongly or not – the notion of separation of church and state. None. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Bupkis.

This is flat out false. As I have pointed out many times, James Madison, though he admittedly faltered from his own principles under political pressure while in office, was actually more of a separationist than the ACLU is today. One need only read his Detached Memoranda, where he argues that even military chaplaincies are a violation of the first amendment, a position that even the ACLU does not take today (nor do I).

If someone out there in Internet-land would like to challenge that statement, please simply provide some evidence. And please don’t tell me about Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut. It is in this letter – and only in this letter – that any founder ever used the phrase “separation of church and state.”

Well okay, Joe, since you’ve challenged me…this is a flat out lie. Okay, perhaps if you demand that the phrase “separation of church and state” be uttered to the letter, maybe this statement is true. But that’s clearly not what Farah intends his readers to believe. Yet Madison – you know, the Father of the Constitution and the primary author of the Bill of Rights, used variations of this phrase numerous times to describe the first amendment’s religion clauses. Like this:

“The civil Government, though bereft of everything like an associated hierarchy, possesses the requisite stability, and performs its functions with complete success, whilst the number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people, have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the State.” (Letter to Robert Walsh, Mar. 2, 1819)

And this:

“Strongly guarded as is the separation between religion and & Gov’t in the Constitution of the United States the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies, may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history.” (Detached Memoranda, circa 1820)

And this:

“Every new and successful example, therefore, of a perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance; and I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.” (Letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822)

All of those variations mean precisely the same thing. Farah is either ignorant of them or playing a stupid semantic game, take your pick. And he’s not done:

Yet, throughout Jefferson’s long life in politics and government, we see a man who, by today’s standards, would be viewed by people like Stark as a card-carrying member of the religious right.

An incredibly ridiculous statement; the exact opposite is true. Jefferson strongly criticized his predecessors, Washington and Adams, for issuing religious declarations. He himself was harshly criticized for refusing to issue such proclamations and slandered as an enemy of religion. Imagine Jefferson criticizing Bush today for issuing a thanksgiving proclamation, as he criticized his predecessors in 1802; would the religious right see him as a card-carrying member of their ranks? Not likely.

For that matter, imagine Jefferson telling Farah and other religious right leaders what he thought about Jesus and the Bible, as he told his trusted friends in many letters. He would tell Farah what he told John Adams, that the trinity was “metaphysical insanity.” He would tell him what he told Adams and Benjamin Rush, among others, that he rejected not only the notion that Jesus was divine, but the very idea that Jesus had ever claimed to be divine.

He would tell Farah what he told many others in private, that the 4 gospel writers and Paul were liars and frauds who distorted the words of Jesus, inserted ridiculous notions like the virgin birth and the resurrection in to the story, and falsely claimed that he performed miracles. He would tell Farah that the Old Testament conception of God was cruel, vindictive and unjust. Do you suppose Farah would welcome him as a card carrying member of the religious right? Not even at gunpoint. Yet he did tell Farah all those things, if only he would bother to read Jefferson’s actual thoughts on the matter.

In 1774, while serving in the Virginia Assembly, Jefferson personally introduced a resolution calling for a day of fasting and prayer.

True, but irrelevant to what the first amendment meant to him at the Federal level. Given that he not only refused to do so as President (and took enormous criticism for that refusal) but criticized others for doing so, we know exactly what Jefferson thought about such actions on the part of the Federal government.

In 1779, as governor of Virginia, Jefferson decreed a day of “public and solemn thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God.”

Also true, but the response above still applies. Both of those actions took place at the state level and well before the first amendment was passed. Jefferson firmly believed, and said so quite explicitly, that the first amendment forbid such declarations by Federal government officials.

As president, Jefferson signed bills that appropriated financial support for chaplains in Congress and the armed services.

And therefore what? Even today, virtually no one argues that such chaplains are unconstitutional. And as there is no line item veto, it is hardly surprising that a bill might include measures that a president doesn’t support.

On March 4, 1805, President Jefferson offered “A National Prayer for Peace,” which petitioned “Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”

Completely fictitious, made up out of whole cloth. March 4, 1805 was the day of Jefferson’s second inauguration. There was no such proclamation issued that day. This lie is repeated on hundreds of religious right webpages but it is a complete myth; it simply never happened.

Is he lying or is he delusional?

Precisely the question we should be asking about you, Joe.


  1. #1 Jon Rowe
    March 29, 2007

    I just got mine done too!

  2. #2 Lettuce
    March 29, 2007

    Farah’s challenge is, as usual, self negating. “None. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Bupkis.”

    Except for the one we know about in popular culture, so that one doesn’t count?

    None of them did, except Jefferson, so Jefferson doesn’t count?

    Your take down is awesome, but I fear amounts to giving Farah too much credit.

  3. #3 AtlLiberal
    March 29, 2007

    Great article. I wish I had your knowledge of history. My interests were in other areas. I’ve done some reading on the Founding Fathers and find your approach refreshing and honest. You openly admit the seeming contradictions that the Religious Right uses to discredit Jefferson and Madison thereby stealing the power they have over present day discussions. Then you back up your arguments with numerous facts that prove your point. Really an enjoyable read. Thanks!

  4. #4 egbooth
    March 29, 2007

    Thanks for the article, Ed. Do you have any good references regarding Jefferson’s views on Jesus and the trinity? I’d be interested in reading them at some point.

  5. #5 Jon Rowe
    March 29, 2007

    The Founders and Trinitarianism is something I blog about quite a bit. My last post on the matter, I noted a letter where Jefferson compares the Trinity to a three headed monster:


  6. #6 Russell
    March 29, 2007

    In discussing Madison’s views of separation of church and state, it’s important to point out that he was the original drafter of the Bill of Rights. So while he may be unrepresentative of his fellow politicians, his views are particularly apposite when discussing the 1st amendment. That doesn’t mean, of course, that courts should look only to his view in interpreting the 1st amendment. Framer’s views aren’t authoritative. But they surely are more relevant than those less involved.

  7. #7 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    March 29, 2007

    It is in this letter – and only in this letter – that any founder ever used the phrase “separation of church and state.”

    Sure. Now, where in the Bible is the word “trinity” used?

  8. #8 Stuart Coleman
    March 29, 2007

    As always, your knowledge of the Founding Fathers is quite impressive. It must really piss you off, as someone who actually understands the, when people use them to support ludicrous positions (whether it’s Hitchens or Farah). What makes me wonder is why people think it’s relevant at all. To me it would be like arguing that many of them held slaves, therefore slavery should be legal.

  9. #9 Jim Gitzlaff
    March 29, 2007

    In discussing the actions of the ‘founding fathers’, especially as here the actions of Jefferson when he as a politician at the state level, it is important to remember the importance of the 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment was essential to the extension of important parts of the Bill of Rights to constrain actions taken by states (prior to its passage, the Bill of Rights was generally understood as a constraint only upon federal activity).

    Obviously, the 14th Amendment was not a product of the ‘founding fathers’ as such. And because it was not passed until 1868 (and court opinions extending bill of rights protections to state actions took decades afterwards to develop) there is a ready explanation why the ‘founding fathers’ actions at the state political level often differed from their actions at the federal level.

  10. #10 DuWayne
    March 29, 2007

    Stuart Coleman –

    What?!? You don’t think that slavery should be legal? I mean come on, Jefferson owned slaves, if it was ok for him, who are you to say it’s wrong. Jeez, some people. . .

  11. #11 Keanus
    March 29, 2007

    Ed, there is a very good paper by Edward Tabash “The True Meaning of the Establishment Clause”. It’s described by its sponsor, The Center for Inquiry, as a postion paper of the Center and Tabash is a long time Chair of the legal committee for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Tabash relates in some detail the history of the Establishment Clause, both the years before it was finally written, during which Jefferson and Madison conceived and pushed through the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the actual writing and debate in the Congress, and a rough synopsis of how Supreme Court has shaped its views up to the present day. The paper’s on line as a PDF at the CFI website.

  12. #12 Keanus
    March 29, 2007

    Somehow I messed up the HTML tags. The url is


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