On The Wrong Path

Church And State After Two Centuries

Back in Thomas Jefferson’s day, presidents were inaugurated in March. Therefore, it was 200 years ago this month that Jefferson took the oath of office to begin his second term.

Jefferson preferred inaugurations devoid of excessive pomp and ceremony. Dressed in a simple outfit of black silk, he arrived at the Capitol Building March 4, 1805, in a plain carriage accompanied only by his private secretary and a groom to see to the horses.

Jefferson was never a forceful public speaker. John Quincy Adams, then a U.S. senator, complained that Jefferson delivered his inaugural address “in so low a voice that not half of it was heard by any part of the crowded auditory.”

He may not have projected well, but Jefferson’s words conveyed powerful ideas. Reviewing the accomplishments of his first term, Jefferson applauded the new country’s commitment to religious freedom and made it clear that, as chief executive, he assumed no authority to meddle in the relationship between man and God.

“In matters of religion, I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the powers of the general government,” Jefferson said. “I have therefore undertaken, on no occasion, to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it; but have left them, as the Constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of state or church authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies.”

Compare those words to the inauguration that took place two months ago. Jefferson’s address contained a deistic reference to “that Being in whose hands we are,” but was not otherwise run as a lengthy Christian worship service.

Bush’s second inaugural, by contrast, contained two Christian clergy leading prayers and gospel singers who performed Christian hymns. It did not feel like an inclusive event.

More troubling than the contrast in inaugural styles is the contrast in public policy. Jefferson, the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, believed in religious and philosophical freedom for everyone – Christians, non-Christians and even skeptics.

Jefferson did not believe that religion needed the prop of the state to survive. In fact, he saw church-state ties as debilitating to faith. He knew that, if left alone, religion would survive and even flourish on its own.

Bush, by contrast, promotes “faith-based” initiatives – a fancy term for taxpayer-supported religion – at every turn. He has the audacity to suggest that religion needs the help of the government. His is the most religion-soaked administration in recent memory.

Worse, ample evidence suggests that Bush and his White House strategists are using the faith-based initiative and constant “God talk” for partisan political ends. They seek votes for the GOP by claiming to appear pious and promising federal “faith money” for pastors who back them; they imply that their political opponents are hostile, or at least indifferent, to religion. They fan the flames of the culture war. Jefferson would be appalled by this use of tax money and the offices of government for partisan purposes and national division.

Bush says judicial extremists like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, who mock Jefferson’s views and blithely dismiss his wall of separation between church and state, are model Supreme Court justices.

At every opportunity, the Bush administration has sought to lower the church-state wall. It pushed a religious-school voucher plan for Washington, D.C., through Congress. Its Justice Departments attacks separation in legal briefs and created a special office to roam the country, looking for church-state disputes to wade into.

When ultra-conservative religious leaders – the Religious Right of the early 19th century – attacked Jefferson by calling him names and circulating lies about him, Jefferson resisted the temptation to return fire and instead stuck to his principles.

Bush embraces today’s Religious Right leaders. They constitute his base, and he panders to them constantly by advocating a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, steering public funds into religiously based abstinence programs and seeking to curb reproductive freedoms.

Intolerant figures like James Dobson – a man who actually believes that the animated cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants is a dupe for the “gay agenda” – don’t embarrass Bush. He welcomes them to the White House with open arms and consults with them on policy matters.

Jefferson worked with James Madison and other leaders of that era to build the wall of separation between church and state. Bush is doing all he can to knock it down.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk from the administration about the new Iraqi government. National elections were held Jan. 30, and Shiite Muslim parties did very well, far outpacing secular parties. This has led to speculation that Iraq may become a theocratic Muslim state.

Administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, were quick to say that won’t happen. The Shiites in Iraq, they insist, have observed the faults of the fundamentalist Muslim state in neighboring Iran and have no desire to repeat that mistake.

That assertion may or may not be true. But we wish President Bush, Vice President Cheney and others would also assure us that we won’t make that mistake here.