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The right making separation of church and state a weapon against the left

November 22, 2010

It is always sad when anyone uses a poignant and emotive moment in history to make a political swipe – such as the press have done by pointing out a particular piece in Sarah Palin‘s upcoming book “America By Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith and Flag,” regarding John F Kennedy‘s key speech in 1960 regarding his religion and his role as President – especially when today is the 47th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination.

But it did get me thinking, of a wider point, and something that has become a “weapon” of words in the last couple of years, in the “them” and “us” narrative from the right to the left and to be fair that at a more rumbling but bumbling level over the past 30 odd years regarding the perceived idea that the left, Liberals, hate the Church and don’t understand the founders position on religion.

In her soon to be released book “America By Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith and Flag,” Palin looks at John F Kennedy’s speech in 1960 where he drew a distinction between his role as the President and his personal role as a Catholic.

“I am not the Catholic candidate for president…I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic.”

During the candidacy there had been much said about Kennedy’s Catholic faith. He would be the first (and still only) Catholic President and many believed that he would give the Vatican carte blanche in directing his decision-making as President. But Kennedy in his speech in 1960 made it clear that just because he was Catholic, had no bearing on the decisions he would make for the American people.

“I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish–where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source.”
By making this above speech earlier in 1959, Kennedy was making it clear his duty was to the Constitution – and as the constitution states on state and religion:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”
Therefore, making laws that favor one religion over another, or that stop people from freely worshipping in their given faith are unconstitutional – religion has no place in the making of or governing of laws. The Constitution in Article VI also goes on to say: “”no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Which basically means questioning or expecting a candidate to be of a certain religion to be trustful or respected to do their job in office has no bearing – which therefore makes Palin’s argument against JFK in her book “unconstitutional”.
By the way you can read (and watch) more of Kennedy’s speech here: www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/jfkhoustonministers.html
In her book she notes Kennedy “”essentially declared religion to be such a private matter that it was irrelevant to the kind of country we are.”” She also accused him of “running” from his religion. But she is wrong, but sadly she is not the only Republican to be making this odious mistake.
During the recent mid-terms, much was made of Christine O’Donnells major faux pas, and one of them being her issues on “separation of church and state“. In mid-October in a debate in Delaware with opponent Chris Coons who would go on to win his seat, O’Donnell after asking “Where in the constitution is the separation of church and state?” was told by her opponent that the constitution prohibited government from establishing any religion. O’Donnell replied “You’re telling me that’s in the first amendment?” (The Guardian) to much laughter from the audience.
Although O’Donnell and her camp were kinda right that “separation of church and state” is not an actual phrase used, the constitution is clear that America was not founded on the principles of one religion having governance over another and nor did religion have a say in the laws of the land. In fact the phrase itself can be traced back to a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote in which he says:
“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people who declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”
“God” does not appear anywhere in the constitution. In the Declaration of Independence, the word “Creator” is referenced:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
But the Declaration of Independence is not a legal document and it is not the constitution. But “unalienable rights” are often brought up by the right when lamenting against, say healthcare. It would seem some have the two very different documents mixed up.
In fact the Treaty of Tripoli clarifies this:
As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
In a book from 2003 by Rob Boston entitled Freedom of Legacy”, the author notes that:
What the Religious Right doesn’t tell people, and what, tragically, many Amer icans apparently don’t know, is that when it comes to determining what the laws of the United States mean, the only document that matters is the Consti tution. The Constitution, a completely secular document, contains no references to God, Jesus or Christianity. It says absolutely nothing about the United States being officially Christian. The Religious Right’s constant appeals to documents like the Declaration of Independence, which contains a deistic reference to “the Creator,” cloud the issue and make some people believe their rights spring from these other documents.
No one is saying that people can not have a personal relationship with God in America – far from it, America’s early European inhabitants fled from their homes to avoid persecution based on their religious views but what one has to understand is that religion should have no place in the laws of governance. For example, look on news comment boards when it comes to the extreme practises that some Islamic countries use in their governance – Iran is a good example – and you will see left and right alike condemning the use of antiquated religious laws used against the inhabitants of the land. But back at home in America some see nothing wrong with using religion or their perceptions of religion to govern over everyone else – take for example George W. Bush’s abstinence program which was firmly rooted in his religious background, or his ruling on stem cell research or other extreme right-wing politicians who lament against freedom of choice for women who choose abortion and use “God” as their defence against their opposition to this choice.
You also only have to look at the way Churches are allowed “tax exemption” but with one of the stipulations being what is known as “Church politicking”. As Americans United for separation of Church and State note on their website:
As tax-exempt entities, houses of worship may not intervene in partisan politics by endorsing or opposing candidates. Pulpit-based electioneering not only violates federal law, many believe it corrupts the true mission of our faith communities.
But if you look today, you will see many evangelical church leaders using the pulpit to “politick”. And yes that includes those who may be perceived as “left” or “right” leaning. Take Pastor Stephen Anderson who in a sermon in 2009 spoke of why he hated President Obama:
I hate Barack Obama. You say, well, you just mean you don’t like what he stands for. No, I hate the person. Oh, you mean you just don’t like his policies. No, I hate him…Now, turn back to Psalm 58 and let me ask you this question. Why should Barack Obama melt like a snail? Why should Barack Obama die like the untimely birth of a woman? Why should his children be fatherless and his wife a widow, as we read in this passage? Well, I will tell you why. Because, since Barack Obama thinks it is OK to use a salty solution, right, to abort the unborn, because that’s how abortions are done, my friend, using salt — and I would like to see Barack Obama melt like a snail tonight. (Crooks and Liars)
And this is a so called “man of God” using his podium at a Church to teach his “Christian” values of not only why he “hates” Obama but why he should “die” also. Now please do not get me wrong but I am not saying this is conducive of all Christians – far from it – but it is a nasty stain not only permeating on religion but encroaching onto politics.
And when you have people such as Sarah Palin or Christine O’Donnell ignorantly blurring the line and trying to claim a point in the constitution that is not there, and yet have the audacity to turn around and say the Left disrespect the Constitution – well I have to say it makes me very angry.
Over the summer of 2010, there has been a protest movement against the planned Islamic Center in New York which is to be built a couple of blocks from Ground Zero. Religion and religious right in American reared a very ugly head. Many against it claimed that although Muslims may have a Constitutional right to build there, the Religious Right could decide which religions had a right to practice freedom of religion. As Mayor Bloomberg pointed out:

“Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question – should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here. This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions, or favor one over another.

“. . . I believe that this is an important test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetime – as important a test – and it is critically important that we get it right.

“On September 11, 2001, thousands of first responders heroically rushed to the scene and saved tens of thousands of lives. . . . In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked ‘What God do you pray to?’ ‘What beliefs do you hold?’

“The attack was an act of war – and our first responders defended not only our City but also our country and our Constitution. We do not honor their lives by denying the very Constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights – and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.”

But many on the Religious Right, and with voices such as Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck etc supporting the stance the Right took, began to perpetuate a myth that America was founded on Christian principles. And that by allowing this Center, these principles were being destroyed.

Newt Gingrich claimed: “America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization.” He, Palin and Beck are joined by a veratable roster of right wing politicians against the Center, including Peter King, Rick Lazio, Rudy Giuliani. However by putting in a claim against this, the politicians are being un constitutional by denying religious freedom and freedom to worship.

CNN put out an interesting news item of this:

This was not just kept to NYC. In Murfreesboro, Tenn, certain religious right Christian groups sued the county and tried to claim that beyond not using the proper rules in approving an expansion of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, the group – Proclaiming Justice to the Nations spent much of their time claiming Islam was not a religion.

As TPM points out from the court proceeding:

Three opponents of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro’s planned expansion have sued the county, claiming officials broke open meeting law when they approved the mosque’s building plan. The officials deny violating any laws. But the case quickly became, not about open meeting laws, but about Islam itself.

“Are you aware that’s all the plaintiffs have wanted from day one is to know whether this is a religious institution,” the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Joe Brandon Jr., asked county commissioner Robert Peay, according to the Murfreesboro Post.

“The United States government recognizes Islam as a religion, and until otherwise they have Constitutional rights,” Peay said.

“I want tolerance back in our community,” Peay went on.

“Where does tolerance meet Sharia law? What tolerance are you asking the plaintiffs to swallow?” Brandon said.

“Tolerance for people to exercise their right to freely practice their religion in our community as protected by the United States Constitution,” Peay replied.

It is easy to understand why some may feel wary of the Islamic Center but for politicians or political heavyweights to try and misuse the constitution whilst at the same time rallying against the Left’s understanding of it – smacks of a serious and dangerous hypocrisy, intolerance and wilful ignorance.

Cornell University Law School states that the First Amendment prevents the government from interfering in the practise of a person’s religion, so why does Palin et al, who are often heard rallying against “Big Government” think it is okay to interfer when it suits them?

John F. Kennedy in 1960 said:

“Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end–where all men and all churches are treated as equal–where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice–where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind–and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.

However with people such as Sarah Palin, Christine O’Donnell and other outspoken Right Wing individuals undermining both the meaning and the understanding of the Constitution it seems to me that 50 years on from his speech and 47 years on from his murder, JFK’s dream of both religious tolerance and the understanding that no religion will have rights above others in America is a very long way from being realized.

The Right uses this as a war against the Left with an inference that the Left has no tolerance for religion or rather cowtows to some and sticks a finger up at others – this is not true. I am a person of faith but as someone said to me, the minute religion tries to make a judgement call in my life, enacts laws that tell me how I can and can not live and expects me to live to their way and theirs only and demands preference over others – then we have a problem.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. blackwatertown permalink
    November 25, 2010 11:57 am

    Great wide-ranging fascinating post. Very timely. Very impressive range of sources.
    It’s interesting that it seems as though those crying loudly about threats to the character of the United States sometimes seem also to be working hard to undermine that character.

    • November 25, 2010 1:32 pm

      Thank you very much for the kind words. And I agree, those witht he loudest voices, those crying foul – such as Fox, Palin, Beck etc, are the ones who are actually doing the most damage.

  2. afrankangle permalink
    November 23, 2010 10:51 pm

    Whoa … How did I miss this win. Will have to return to digest again.

    Well done. Palin is forgetting many things … primarily the context of the time in history. A Roman Catholic running for president was a big deal AT THAT TIME – a time when Protestants looked at Roman Catholics as weird. Meanwhile, I will return. Well done.

    • November 24, 2010 9:53 am

      Thank you once again for the kind words. And agreed, this was a very different time and as you say Kennedy’s speech stemmed from the perception people had about his faith – which anyone who had any inkling of history would understand and which I understand due to Palin’s flagrant disregard for history, she doesn’t get it. Kennedy was not running from his religion as she alleges in her diatribe and weak “liberal bashing” comment, but clarifying that his duty was to the American People and not to the Vatican as some right wingers and as you say Protestant Americans were trying to spin.

      But hey, as we know, Palin will “refudiate” that as “liberal spinning of history” and will claim that she knows the truth.

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