"Wall of Separation": A Carefully Constructed Edifice Of Misinformation
By Rev. Barry Lynn, Executive Director
Americans United has been critical of a program being offered to PBS stations called “Wall of Separation.”
We became suspicious about the production because the film’s director and writer, Brian Godawa, is a militant theocrat with close ties to Christian Reconstructionism, the most extreme faction of the Religious Right. He and his allies believe that Christians of his stripe should take control, not only of the government, but of all aspects of society – including the entertainment industry.
Americans United was concerned that “Wall of Separation” is designed not to educate but to promote an inaccurate view of the historical origins of church-state separation. Some critics accused me of attacking a program I had not seen. We ordered a copy, and yesterday several members of the AU staff and I screened it. I regret to report that “Wall of Separation” is even worse than I had imagined. It is clearly designed to promote views held by Religious Right extremists.
A common theme running through “Wall of Separation” is that the Founding Fathers sought a government based on the Bible. It’s odd that the framers would want this so much yet neglect to actually put it in the Constitution. In fact, claims of America being founded on “biblical law” are the stock and trade of Christian Reconstructionists and other theocrats who openly espouse a government based on their narrow definition of Christianity.
But their wishing does not make it so. Offering no evidence, “Wall of Separation” asserts that the Founding Fathers intended for U.S. law to be based on biblical codes. About halfway through the film, the narrator notes that the framers had diverse religious views but then adds, “But this diversity of religious beliefs was nevertheless within the context of a religious consensus that promoted the integration of biblical moral codes in society and biblical civil codes in government. This was their original intent — but it would not last forever.”
This is a remarkable statement – mainly for its wrong-headedness. The claim that the founders intended for American law to be based on the Bible’s civil code, is, to be blunt, ridiculous. The civil codes of the Old Testament mandate the death penalty for offense like adultery, blasphemy, failure to keep the Sabbath, “unchastity,” failure to respect parents and others. None of this is reflected in the Constitution, and no appeal to the Bible, Christianity or even God is made in that secular document. U.S. law is based on several sources, but the Bible is not one of them.
“Wall of Separation” contains several other factual errors and highly misleading statements. But its biggest fault may be that it is riddled with errors of omission. No context is given for many of the topics discussed, and an incomplete treatment is often provided. Key historical details are left out. (It is remarkable, for example, that a program that purports to be a documentary about church-state history contains not one word about the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty – considered by most scholars a key influence on the First Amendment.)
In short, “Wall of Separation” is a cleverly packaged piece of propaganda, obviously designed to promote the Religious Right view that separation of church and state was not the intention of America’s Founding Fathers.
Here are some specific errors AU uncovered in the film. (This is by no means an exhaustive list):
Claim: Thomas Jefferson supported seminaries at the University of Virginia.
Response: Just the opposite is true. Jefferson opposed having a divinity professor at the university, asserting that religious groups could provide services in the town of Charlottesville. UVA is generally regarded as the first American university to separate religion from higher education.
Claim: Jefferson supported using the Bible in Washington, D.C.’s public schools.
Response: During his presidency, Jefferson served as president of the local school board in a largely ceremonial post. The board adopted a proposal to include the Bible in the curriculum in 1812 – three years after Jefferson left the board. In his Notes on Virginia, Jefferson opposed teaching the Bible to children, arguing that their minds were not mature enough.
Claim: James Madison approved chaplains in Congress.
Response: Madison did so early in his career. He later admitted his mistake, writing, “The establishment of the chaplainship to Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles.”
Claim: Jefferson wrote the Northwest Ordinance, which called for government funding of religion.
Response: Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Northwest Ordinance, and his language was wholly secular. A congressional committee later added language stating, “Religion, Morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” The document does not endorse government funding of religion.
Claim: “In God We Trust” is inscribed in the House and Senate chambers and appears on U.S. currency, thus proving that the framers supported mixing religion and government.
Response: These are modern developments, dating to the 1950s. “In God We Trust” was adopted as a national motto in 1956. (“In God We Trust” first appeared on some coins during the Civil War. Its use was not mandated on coins until the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. Its use on paper money was mandated by Congress during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower.)
Claim: Benjamin Franklin called for prayers during the Constitutional Convention.
Response: True, but “Wall of Separation” fails to tell the rest of the story: The delegates did not act on the request. Franklin himself noted, “The convention, except three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary.” Why would a convention determined to forge a society based on “biblical law” open its deliberations without even a nod to a Supreme Being?
Claim: The Supreme Court applied the Bill of Rights to the states in 1947’s Everson v. Board of Education.
Response: The 14th Amendment, passed after the Civil War, applies portions of the Bill of Rights to the states. During the debate over the amendment, Sen. Jacob Howard (R-Mich.), a primary advocate, said the amendment’s purpose was to apply the first eight amendments of the Bill of Rights to the states. “To these privileges and immunities,” he noted, “should be added the personal rights guaranteed and secured by the first eight amendments to the Constitution….The great object of the first section of the amendment is therefore to restrain the powers of the state and to compel them at all times to respect these fundamental guarantees.” The Supreme Court recognized this as early as the 1920s and fully embraced “incorporation” in a 1940 ruling, Cantwell v. Connecticut.
Claim: In 1963, the Supreme Court struck down “voluntary Bible reading” in public schools in Abington Township School District v. Schempp.
Response: There was nothing voluntary about it. Pennsylvania state law mandated that ten verses of the King James Bible be read aloud every day followed by recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Schools were not required to excuse students, and some punished those who would not take part.
Claim: Article VI, a constitutional provision that bans religious tests for public office, was actually designed to preserve religious tests in the states.
Response: This is an absurd argument. When Article VI was announced, it sparked a firestorm of opposition from conservative religious leaders, who supported religious tests for public office. They did not perceive Article VI as helpful to their cause.
Here are some other problems with “Wall of Separation”: Throughout, the program is marred by a lack of proper context. Virtually no information is given about religious freedom in colonial America and the persecution spawned by established churches. It is impossible to understand why the framers were so passionate about the need to separate church and state without some discussion of this history.
No discussion of the context and history of the 14th Amendment is included. Court rulings are grossly oversimplified. Some of the program’s claims are simply silly. It is stated, for example, that the framers personally approved religious inscriptions on federal buildings in Washington, D.C. – buildings that were erected long after they were dead.
“Wall of Separation” implies that the Supreme Court adopted the “wall of separation” metaphor abruptly in 1947. In fact, it was cited by the court first in 1878. Everson is portrayed as 5-4 ruling, implying that the “wall” metaphor was approved by a sharply divided court. In fact, the court unanimously approved the metaphor and split over the question of the constitutionality of the challenged school bus subsidy for parochial school students.
Dubious assertions are simply stated as fact. The claim is made that the First Amendment was intended to protect established churches in the states. In fact, many scholars see it as a rebuke to them. Indeed, states soon began to follow the federal model and end their established churches. By 1833, all were gone.
Likewise, claims are made that the founders sought a country based on the Bible and the Ten Commandments. No evidence is offered for these claims; they are simply put forth as if they are obvious facts instead of highly controversial assertions.
After seeing “Wall of Separation,” I can only be appalled that PBS decided to sully its fine reputation by offering their affiliates such a shoddy production.
By Barry W. Lynn
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