Unbiased “God in America” uses biased scholar

I started watching the PBS mini-series “God in America” tonight and while the program claims to be unbiased one of the people interviewed is an old friend of the late Dr. James Kennedy, who holds a limited view of the separation of church and state.

Daniel Dreisbach is interviewed extensively in the first couple of episodes as they deal with religion in Early America through the writing of the Constitution. This disappointed me.

Dreisbach was a friend of the late evangelical Dr. James Kennedy. I wrote about his appearance in a FOX “news” religion special in 2006. See “Fox News report on “Religion in America” was slanted”. He used the usual religious right claim that the wall of separation of church and state written by Jefferson in his letter to the Danbury Baptist was a one way wall meant to keep only the federal government from establishing a church and didn’t apply to the states.

In a long interview on the “God in America” website Dreisbach continues the sham: (their questions are in bold)

[What was behind the ban on religious tests for office?]

… There is a forgotten religion clause in the unamended Constitution of 1787. And in Article VI, Clause 3, there is a prohibition on religious tests for federal officeholders. This is a rather significant departure from the Old World practices, where oftentimes a public officer was required to take a religious test.

Now, there have been those in our own time who have viewed the religious test ban as the cornerstone of the secular state and in some respects a precursor to the First Amendment, which was not added to the Constitution till 1791.

I see the religious test ban a little bit differently, because I think this also reaffirms this idea of federalism. I would argue that the religious test ban was written into the Constitution not out of a general denunciation of religious tests, but rather it was written into the Constitution to support and defend religious tests, albeit the religious tests that were already in place at the state and local levels. The great fear in 1787 was that this new federal newcomer would sort of come crashing onto the scene and supplant the various policies and practices at the state level. …

“Wall of separation”: Why did Jefferson write that letter to the [Danbury Baptist Association] and explain stuff to them?


I think that what we read in this “wall of separation” statement is not a broad principle that church and state must always be separate. Rather he’s reaffirming the principle of federalism. He’s explaining why he, as president, cannot issue such proclamations, and yet he, as the governor of Virginia, had issued days for prayer, fasting and thanksgiving.

And again, I would say that this is the lens through which you must look at whatever the Constitution has to say about religion. It is fundamentally about the separation of powers between what the national government can do and what state and local authorities can do. And the wall of separation is really, in my opinion, an affirmation of the principle of federalism.

Now, this is a metaphor that was picked up much later in American history. It was mentioned by the Supreme Court in an 1879 decision, but it’s really not until the mid-20th century, in an important Establishment Clause case in 1947, a case called Everson v. Board of Education, that the Supreme Court picked up Jefferson’s metaphor and virtually elevates it to the status of constitutional law. So today it’s very hard to have a conversation about church and state without invoking this “wall of separation” metaphor. It’s come to define the way in which many Americans, including scholars and jurists, talk about, think about the prudential and constitutional relationship between church and state. …

For white Protestant males, it wasn’t much of a wall, was it? For blacks, Catholics, Mormons, it must have felt much more like a wall.

I certainly think that we have seen a transition in our understanding, interpretation and application of the wall of separation or, more broadly, this idea of separation of church and state. It certainly means something very different if you live in a culture, in a society that presumes a Protestant cultural hegemony, and you move into the future, as we have done, to a society that is much less Protestant and is much more secular in nature.

We have a kind of religious diversity unimagined by the Founders. … So there has emerged a kind of a secular construction, a secular interpretation of separation of church and state, which is significantly different than a strictly Protestant conception of what separation of church and state means.

I think this is why so many very pious Protestant Christians today denounce the wall of separation, because they see it not as something that protects the exercise of one’s religious expression, but something that is used to exclude them from public life. It’s an instrument used to deny them the ability to contribute as citizens to public debates if their debates are informed by religious ideals.

Do you think they’re right to feel that?

There are certainly examples in our society today where this wall of separation has been used — and, I think one could argue, misused — to exclude faith-based ideas and faith-based arguments in the broader secular culture. …

Isn’t that the problem? The moment it becomes a faith-based idea, secularists and people who don’t believe the same thing feel that God or religion has skipped over that wall.

I don’t think that there’s any objection to allowing the faith-based ideas or arguments to be expressed. I think that the state cannot adopt policies that are not defensible on legitimate secular grounds. So there’s two parts to this. I think all arguments should be open in that marketplace, but the state is limited in the kinds of policies that it can adopt. …

Interview: Daniel Dreisbach

It seems that even after four years, Dreisbach is still wrong about church and state.

I am also concerned that the other people set to be interviewed during the rest of the series don’t seem to have any atheist or freethought cred – I didn’t know any of them.

Doug Written by:

Founder, editor and host of Secular Left - please be gentle


  1. October 12, 2010

    Dreisbach is correct about Jefferson and federalism. Everson is a legal fiction.

    "In matters of religion, I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the constitution independent of the powers of the general government. 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."

    – Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1805, quoted in The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations, James H. Hutson, editor (Princeton University Press: 2005), pg. 62.
    My recent post Quote of the day- religion and national morality

    • sbj1964
      February 28, 2011

      You sir know the constitution better than most of the Supreme court !

  2. October 12, 2010

    "Jefferson believed that while states as a matter of right, may not be able to do X, he didn't believe that the federal government had the recognized power to prevent them from doing X. Under Jeffersonian principles of federalism, the federal government would address federal violations of natural right, the states would address state and local government violations. And he believed that state governments would be more effective in doing so than the federal government." – http://jonrowe.blogspot.com/2005/07/dr.html – also Dreisbach forwards his claim as being accurate today which in light of 200 years of jurisprudence is wrong. He is still wrong. Jefferson writing the Virginia Religious Freedom Act is the proof.

    Everson was fiction only if you believe the 1st amendment is fiction.

    • sbj1964
      February 28, 2011

      We were not always such a backward or religious country. The 1800s with the civil war turned Americans into a bunch of bible pounding hypocrites !

  3. sbj1964
    February 28, 2011

    So cadfile ? Why does the Supreme court get it so wrong so many times ?

  4. sbj1964
    February 28, 2011

    Because the fundys control this land. Time for a new order to emerge. One based on Logic,science ,and common sense .

  5. sbj1964
    March 5, 2011

    VIVA THE REVOLUTION!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Dam what was that ?

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