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Church and State: The Ramparts Besieged

by Robert L. Maccox

Mr. Maddox, a Southern Baptist minster, is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, with headquarters in Silver Springs, Maryland. This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 23, 1987, pp. 191-192. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Every now and then I feel the need to renew my spirit with a visit to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The austere beauty of that classic estate is as soothing to the soul as to the eye, and well rewards a morning’s drive through the Virginia countryside.

On one such recent pilgrimage to Charlottesville, my route took me through Bull Run Park, the site of two major Civil War battles. It occurred to me as I drove that freedom’s battles were fought both in the calm of Monticello and in the tumult of Bull Run. Jefferson fought with words as his weapons and the armies fought with bullets—both striving mightily for human liberation. The outcome of each struggle was a new measure of liberty which marked another lurching step toward the promise of freedom Americans had made to themselves.

I wish those victories had been won forever, and the banished despots of mind and body would stay at their St. Helenas. But it seems that every generation must fight the battles of Monticello and Bull Run all over again. In the high-tech 1980s, Americans are called on anew to say No to ancient and recurring tyrannies.

Now, 200 years after Jefferson, the country is gripped in a battle for religious liberty. Through overt and covert means, political and religious leaders want to control religious impulses and reshape spiritual sensibilities. Agencies of the state want to define the church. Politicians want to dictate modes of prayer. Church leaders exhort the government to enforce a religious agenda, though this goal flouts the principle of religious liberty through separation of church and state (a principle which now sustains attacks as never before in this century).

Not long ago I addressed a group of pastors. In detailing some of our recent activities, I noted that Americans United had opposed the appointment of William Rehnquist as chief justice of the United States. One of the pastors, obviously disturbed, asked, "Why would you oppose Rehnquist?" He seemed unmoved and certainly unconvinced when I told him that Mr. Rehnquist has the worst record on church and state of any justice on the Supreme Court. Well before moving to the court’s central chair, Rehnquist had stated his position, dissenting in the 1985 school prayer case, Wallace v. Jaffree.

In that case Justice Rehnquist wrote that Alabama has the right to enforce government-sponsored prayer in public schools, and even to establish a state-sponsored church if it wants to—which questions the premise (based on the Fourteenth Amendment) that constitutional prohibitions on infringement of rights extend to the states. Rehnquist mounted a vigorous attack on the wall of church-state separation, saying that Jefferson’s metaphor was "useless" and should be "abandoned."

By promoting Rehnquist and nominating the archconservative Antonin Scalia to the court, President Reagan has turned the tables on religious and civil liberty advocates. Once fairly certain of a fair shake if their cases reached the high court, church-state separationists will now have to try harder. They need more cases and better cases to illustrate their points. And they need to engender public outcry: even Supreme Court justices care what they read about themselves in the newspapers.

The 1986 elections saw a renewal of religious/political campaigning. Many candidates, making their Christianity a prime qualification, calling for a return to Old Testament law, or promising to get "prayer back into the schools," secured major party (mostly Republican) support. Most voters rejected such efforts, and on the whole, candidates closely tied to the religious right did not fare well. But the religious right is rapidly gaining in political savvy, and its threat will grow. Dozens of lawmakers who lean heavily to the right are already firmly entrenched in Congress and will continue to assault the Jeffersonian wall that protects both church and state. This right-wing faction has promoted the school prayer amendment to the Constitution and similar initiatives to declare America a "Christian nation"; it is working intently to bring about a constitutional convention at which its representatives could propose curtailments of various freedoms, is drafting laws to confer official favor on specific religious establishments.

One example of the threats to religious liberty that have arisen in Congress is the current bill proposing a "voucher" system directing education funds to either public or private (including religious) schools. The administration, twice defeated on this issue, still seems determined to pursue it. The position of Americans United is that public funds should go to public schools. By law all children have the right to benefit from certain federal programs, but the voucher system—through which funds can be spent to benefit the school, not just the student—is both unconstitutional and poor public policy. To fund religious schools is to fund religious teaching. And to aid parochial and other private schools at the expense of the already beleaguered, underfunded public schools plunges the nation further into bankruptcy.

On other issues, such as the family, or "morality," for which it claims support, the Reagan administration has the worst record of any recent administration with regard to religious liberty. This unsatisfactory performance has been evident in three areas.

( 1) School prayer: Despite the over-whelming weight of constitutional scholarship opposing state-sponsored school prayer, President Reagan has made known his wish to "get prayer back in the schools" (though in point of fact it has never been expelled). He threw his weight behind the school prayer amendment, and even the defeat of that proposal has not made him reconsider.

(2) Parochial school aid: In addition to supporting a voucher system, the Reagan administration has been indefatigable in its desire to channel public money generally into private schools. It has proposed, at various times, tuition tax credits, tax deductions for private schooling, "bypasses" and other devices. Though these proposals are actually unconstitutional, the administration’s efforts continue on their behalf.

(3) Ambassador to the Holy See: The administration rejected various objections and forged ahead to appoint an ambassador to the Holy See, at the same time granting full diplomatic status to the pope’s envoy in the United States. A number of Protestant, Catholic and civil liberties groups challenged this special nod to one faith, declaring that such recognition jeopardizes the rights of other churches (and of individual Catholics) by creating a direct government link with the Vatican. So far the courts have turned aside the legal challenge on the technical grounds of standing, or the right to sue. Last December the Supreme Court rejected the case and spurned a bid for reconsideration.

Public schools have never been more reviled than they are today. Teachers are often painted as villainous "secular humanists," guilty of corrupting our youth. Certainly, the public schools are far from perfect; but public educators should not be asked to pick up the slack for parents who are too busy or otherwise unable to fulfill all of their children’s needs. It is poor education and even poorer religion to ask the public schools to become evangelists. Parents ought to take an interest in what is happening in their children’s classes. And they can work with the schools to foster the growth of morals and values—and patriotism. They can even urge the schools to talk about religious freedom and to discuss the role of religion in national life. But they should abjure religious indoctrination in the public schools. Despite the ambiguities, schools can teach religious freedom and discuss morality, while still rejecting the preaching of religion.

If the ominous portents concerning the Supreme Court hold true, the fight for religious liberty will take on added urgency at the state level. In some states a condition of de facto establishment of religion already exists. In Louisiana, for example, massive state aid to religious education is a way of life. And in 1986 proposals for church-school aid passed in South Dakota and Utah. The decreased chance of a sympathetic hearing at the Supreme Court calls for intensified vigilance to keep this condition from spreading. In Massachusetts, a campaign by church-state separationists was successful in convincing voters to defeat a proposal to allow tax support for private and religious schools; the vote was 70 per cent to 30 per cent. Most states’ constitutions include provisions for church-state separation that are actually stricter than those of the U.S. Constitution—but they are often violated.

Intractable as they are, all these problems are relatively clear-cut in comparison with the subtle attempts to read into the Constitution a mandate for a state-blessed civil religion. Many religious leaders, as well as public officials, talk of friendship between church and state, and claim that in charging the government to be neutral regarding religion the founders meant "neutral among different sects." Almost always, what these people mean is that the government should be neutral among Christian denominations, but should decidedly favor Christianity (or, in their more generous moments, they may refer to "Judeo-Christian" religions). In fact, the founders by no means envisioned such a system of church-state cooperation. The logical result of such proposals would be not a stronger church but an innocuous, bland religion. Religion has nothing to gain from a cozy relationship with the state that could cost it its independence and moral vigor.

Even more frighteningly, the nation has become besieged by zealots who wish to make one particular, exclusive form of Christianity the national faith. Electronic preachers who command the ears of millions rail against the "myth" of church-state separation. One of the most powerful of them, Pat Robertson, now in the midst of an as-yet-undeclared presidential campaign, has equated church-state separationists with communists and decries the "unelected tyrants" of the Supreme Court, encouraging defiance of its rulings.

Robertson’s religious beliefs, and those of others like him, are assuredly sincere. But so many clergy today seem to have forgotten their origins—theological, political and historical. They seem unable to remember, or to accept, that their freedom of religion also extends to all others—as pure freedom, not as the mere shadow of liberty we call "toleration."

It is to protect that freedom of belief (which of course includes the freedom not to believe) that the church-state battlelines are drawn today. The struggle promises to continue.


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