If Bill O'Reilly had succeeded, Americans United would have needed a new executive director, and Church & State readers would be seeing a different writer in this column. However, he failed.
The conservative host of Fox News Channel's "O'Reilly Factor" announced at the opening of his most recent debate with me, "Today, I am going to turn you around, bring you over to my side once and for all."
"Give it your best shot," I said.
What followed was a five-minute "interchange" over the propriety of President George W. Bush's increasing use of overtly religious language in his speeches. O'Reilly's view seemed to be that because even Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wrote about God, it was perfectly fine for Bush to "carry on" the tradition.
Let's be clear: Jefferson and Madison in private correspondence and other writings did sometimes discuss religious topics (Jefferson more so than Madison). That is not at all comparable to Bush's dizzying level of specific religious references in more and more of his formal, public addresses. Similarly, those Framers did not seek to turn their religious ideas into national policy. As president, Thomas Jefferson refused to officially declare national days of prayer and thanksgiving; Madison declared a few but later said he wished he had not.
Compare that to Bush, who constantly promotes "faith-based" solutions to virtually every human problem from crime to addiction to homelessness all, of course, using the tax dollars of both the willing and the unwilling.
Many of those who forged our nation had religious views; some even wanted some official recognition of those views in the Constitution. The latter group, however, lost the debate more than 200 years ago. Even separationists occasionally said or did things that they later regretted. Madison voted for a congressional chaplain, for example, but subsequently admitted his error.
On the other hand, President Bush is deliberately specific in his choice of references that appeal to evangelical Christians. Why does the president refer to the "Great Commission" (the charge to bring the Christian gospel to all the world), or quote old Baptist hymns in the State of the Union address ("power, wonder-working power" which concludes, in the original, "in the precious blood of the Lamb")?
These are a kind of code, aimed at letting those on the inside know that the president is "one of them." The thrill of hearing that "wonder-working power" line was not lost on various evangelical websites the next day, with many celebrating Bush's words.
The president occasionally pulls out all the stops. Why does he suggest to journalist Bob Woodward that when it comes to making decisions about war that he uses "God-given" values, not "United States-created values"? Why announce that you will only nominate people for federal judgeships who "know our rights come from God"? There are some times when Bush wants the role his faith plays in policy to be unmistakably clear.
Many Americans United members are rightly indignant when any politician seems to be wrapping his or her political agenda in religious rhetoric. I am coming to believe that our current President wants his listeners to believe that his way is God's way. Many of his supporters believe God chose Bush to lead America. Tim Goeglin, a high level White House staffer, has said: "I think President Bush is God's man at this hour, and I say this with a great sense of humility." This is very dangerous thinking because it ultimately leads some to the conclusion that Bush's will and God's will are one and the same; if you oppose Bush you oppose God.
And yet some of Bush's policies to me seem to conflict with the faith he claims to cherish. The president is fond of saying, "Government cannot put hope in people's hearts." Oh, really? Ask the high school student next door how she feels when her college-aid grant arrives from the government. Ask a person whose house is knocked down by a hurricane if federal disaster relief provides a sense of hope. Talk to a poor family who eats because they get food stamps. Governments can provide hope. This one, for all of Bush's talk of religion and values, simply chooses not to.
The Boston Globe recently ran a sad story about the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs telling a big homeless shelter in Northampton, Mass., that it would lose funding for nearly half its beds. Why? Apparently "faith-based" shelters have been getting a leg up on other providers by checking off a box on their grant applications indicating they are faith-based.
A leader of Veterans United told the newspaper, "We feel there wasn't a fair playing field." The practical effect of giving to faith-based groups is often taking from previously successful secular groups. Somebody loses. In this case, a homeless advocate put it bluntly: "This means more people will be sleeping on the streets and more people will die."
Not only did Bill O'Reilly not convince me to come over to his side, I pledge anew to keep telling it like it is: The president's use of religious rhetoric to buttress his ongoing assault on the wall of separation between church and state is inappropriate, appalling and dangerous.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State