Tag Archives: bias

Unbiased “God in America” uses biased scholar

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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.

Obama moves away from religious favoritism but fails to remove discriminatory rules

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During the campaign President Barack Obama promised to change how the federal government gave money to religious groups. While he did change the title of the office created under President Bush, he has yet to remove the rules and regulations that allowed religious groups to discriminate when getting federal grant money.

It is no secret that some of groups that provide social services in the country were founded and operated by religious groups. It is part of their ministry to run charities. In some cases these charities receive tax dollars to pay for those operations. Before President Bush created the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, those religious groups who wanted federal money had to apply like all charities and be subject to the same rules against discrimination. In the case of religion, programs operated by religious groups weren’t allowed to proselytize to clients.

President Bush changed that. He relaxed rules on religious groups and even allowed tax dollars to pay for construction and renovation of buildings used for worship.

President Obama changed the title of the office to Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and we in the secular community thought that was a huge start, short of doing away with the office all together. However, it seems Obama has yet to rescind the Bush era rules that made the office such a bad idea in the first place.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today expressed disappointment that President Barack Obama’s “faith-based” initiative is being rolled out without repeal of Bush-era policies that violate civil rights and civil liberties.

Obama issued an executive order today (Feburary 5th) appointing Joshua DuBois as executive director of the White House faith-based office and setting up an advisory council on faith-based and other issues.

President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative allowed religious groups that accept tax funding to engage in discriminatory hiring and celebrated faith-based groups that proselytize. Today’s Obama action leaves the Bush executive orders in place including one that specifically authorizes religion-based employment discrimination in publicly funded programs.

Americans United Says President Obama’s ‘Faith-Based’ Program Lacks Adequate Constitutional Safeguards

As of the date of this post, President Obama hasn’t made the changes yet. Americans United are asking for people to contact the President and demand the changes.

Spinning History

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I was zooming the web the other evening for some research when I came across a virtual exhibit on the Library of Congress website. It was titled Religion and the Founding of the American Republic and it piqued my interest, naturally. However after reading the text accompanying the exhibit objects, one would think the authors of the text are spinning history to justify a religious right agenda.

The Library of Congress is the research arm of the United States Congress and is also known as the nation’s library. It holds:

29 million catalogued books and other print materials in 470 languages; more than 58 million manuscripts; the largest rare book collection in North America, including a Gutenberg Bible, over 1 million US Government publications, 1 million issues of world newspapers spanning the past three centuries, 33,000 bound newspaper volumes, 500,000 microfilm reels, and over 6,000 comic books; and the world’s largest collection of legal materials, films, 4.8 million maps, sheet music and 2.7 million sound recordings.

Library of Congress

The Library has also begun digitizing many significant written works in its holdings and those holdings are available for viewing through a web browser on its website. It is not an academic institution but it does some research in the library sciences and one would think that being a government agency, it would try to operate in the spirit of the nation’s laws and policies.

The exhibit Religion and the Founding of the American Republic sets out to show:

The efforts of the Founders of the American nation to define the role of religious faith in public life and the degree to which it could be supported by public officials that was not inconsistent with the revolutionary imperatives of the equality and freedom of all citizens is the central question which this exhibition explores.

Unfortunately the exhibit spins some unusual conclusions about the history the exhibit highlights.

For example is the passage:

Franklin Requests Prayers in the Constitutional Convention
Benjamin Franklin delivered this famous speech, asking that the Convention begin each day’s session with prayers, at a particularly contentious period, when it appeared that the Convention might break up over its failure to resolve the dispute between the large and small states over representation in the new government. The eighty one year old Franklin asserted that “the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this Truth–that God governs in the Affairs of Men.” “I also believe,” Franklin continued, that “without his concurring Aid, we shall succeed in this political Building no better than the Builders of Babel.” Franklin’s motion failed, ostensibly because the Convention had no funds to pay local clergymen to act as chaplains.

Religion And The Constitution

The record shows that the lack of funds for a chaplain was not the reason his motion failed. The motion failed because the convention adjourned for the day before a vote was taken and it was not brought up again. They debated the issue for a time and no one wanted to pass it. When an assembly doesn’t wish to vote on a motion on the floor they can either table it or adjourn and it goes away, The convention chose to adjourn. See: The Franklin Prayer Myth

Then there is this example:

The Continental-Confederation Congress, a legislative body that governed the United States from 1774 to 1789, contained an extraordinary number of deeply religious men. The amount of energy that Congress invested in encouraging the practice of religion in the new nation exceeded that expended by any subsequent American national government. Although the Articles of Confederation did not officially authorize Congress to concern itself with religion, the citizenry did not object to such activities. This lack of objection suggests that both the legislators and the public considered it appropriate for the national government to promote a nondenominational, nonpolemical Christianity.

Congress appointed chaplains for itself and the armed forces, sponsored the publication of a Bible, imposed Christian morality on the armed forces, and granted public lands to promote Christianity among the Indians. National days of thanksgiving and of “humiliation, fasting, and prayer” were proclaimed by Congress at least twice a year throughout the war. Congress was guided by “covenant theology,” a Reformation doctrine especially dear to New England Puritans, which held that God bound himself in an agreement with a nation and its people. This agreement stipulated that they “should be prosperous or afflicted, according as their general Obedience or Disobedience thereto appears.” Wars and revolutions were, accordingly, considered afflictions, as divine punishments for sin, from which a nation could rescue itself by repentance and reformation.

Religion and the Congress of the Confederation, 1774-89

But history also shows that many of these “religious” actions were taken for political reasons – not religious reasons.

During this same period of time the “tradition” of issuing proclamations for days of fasting, prayer and Thanksgiving was also begun. It is again important to note that the “proclamations” and Chaplains were begun before we were a nation, and that at least in the case of the proclamations it frequently served a political object far more than it did a religious purpose. (See The Political Move That Backfired) In the early days at least, a proclamation was almost always offered at times when it was felt that a unifying act was needed to hold together the people of the young nation and accomplish a political goal. The first of these proclamations was made on November 1, 1777 not only to give thanks, but also to aid the war effort. The Congress chose 18th of December 1777 for this proclamation, a date that used to be referred to as the home harvest time.

Chaplains and Congress: An Overview from 1774 to early 1800’s

This is the same thing President Bush did after 9/11. He called for a National Day of Prayer. Not for any religious reasons but for a unifying/political reason. It also happened when Congress added the words “Under God” to the pledge. It wasn’t for any religious significance – it was in opposition to the so-called “godless” Soviets during the Cold War.

The final example I’ll post in this entry concerns the discussion of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The exhibit starts out by saying:

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the third and fourth Presidents, are generally considered less hospitable to religion than their predecessors, but evidence presented in this section shows that, while in office, both offered religion powerful symbolic support.


Presented here are both the handwritten, edited draft of the letter and an adjusted facsimile showing the original unedited draft. The draft of the letter reveals that, far from dashing it off as a “short note of courtesy,” as some have called it, Jefferson labored over its composition. Jefferson consulted Postmaster General Gideon Granger of Connecticut and Attorney General Levi Lincoln of Massachusetts while drafting the letter. That Jefferson consulted two New England politicians about his messages indicated that he regarded his reply to the Danbury Baptists as a political letter, not as a dispassionate theoretical pronouncement on the relations between government and religion.

“A Wall Of Separation”

The exhibit is correct in saying that the meaning of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists has been debated for many years but it is wrong in its conclusion that it was simply a political letter and not a pronouncement. The fact that he sent a draft to two other people shows he thought it was a very important letter.

Granger advised him not to change a word Lincoln, on the other hand, thought it would be prudent to eliminate the part of the letter in which Jefferson emphasized his opposition to proclaiming days of fasting and thanksgiving, on the grounds that this might cost him political support in the eastern states, which had long-established traditions of government proclamations of thanksgiving.


It was a response to the very thesis of the Baptists’ letter: that religious rights are by nature inalienable. The Baptists wanted that view to prevail in Connecticut. Jefferson’s metaphor assured them that this was already true on the national level, and that the federal government had no right to legislate on religious matters in any way.


The exhibit also spins James Madison’s view on church and state. It says:

James Madison took the lead in steering such a bill through the First Federal Congress, which convened in the spring of 1789. The Virginia Ratifying Convention and Madison’s constituents, among whom were large numbers of Baptists who wanted freedom of religion secured, expected him to push for a bill of rights. On September 28, 1789, both houses of Congress voted to send twelve amendments to the states. In December 1791, those ratified by the requisite three fourths of the states became the first ten amendments to the Constitution. Religion was addressed in the First Amendment in the following familiar words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In notes for his June 8, 1789, speech introducing the Bill of Rights, Madison indicated his opposition to a “national” religion. Most Americans agreed that the federal government must not pick out one religion and give it exclusive financial and legal support.

Religion And The Bill Of Rights

The quoted material above is just plain wrong. Madison was more a separationist than Jefferson in words and actions. The author of the exhibit text makes a huge mistake in interpreting the word “national” as in National church. Madison believed any government support for religion was creating a national church. The Constitutional Principle website goes into great detail on the context and meaning of Madison’s words. Here is a brief quote from it:

Thus the proposition that Madison meant merely a national church or no preference in the support of religion is groundless, . . . to Madison “a NATIONAL religion” broadly covered as much as even the most trifling matters. Chief Justice Rehnquist built most of his opinion favoring the constitutionality of non preferential government aid to religion on the baseless reading he gave to ” national religion,” without considering or knowing that Madison believed that military chaplains or fast day constituted a national religion.26 Rehnquist merely read his own values into ” National religion” (as did Madison). The views that Madison expressed in 1789 on establishment of religion conform generally to his views, whether a thought in terms of the general assessment, a religious establishment, or a national religion. In each instance he wanted “perfect separation”27 between government and religion.

James Madison And National Religion

The important historical fact to remember is the US Constitution is godless and the founding fathers had ample opportunity to install God into it and the Bill of Rights and they chose NOT to that. Every attempt to do so during the convention was defeated.

Yes, the founders went to church and prayed. Some even issued days of Thanksgiving or some thought religion was important for the new republic. But that doesn’t “prove” that our government is suppose to accommodate religion by doing away with separation of church and state.

The Library of Congress exhibit Religion and the Founding of the American Republic lacks balance in its interpretation and in some cases is wrong in its conclusions.