News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 17, 2007

Stephanie Salter: An idea the founding fathers believed in: Separation of church and state

By Stephanie Salter

TERRE HAUTE — Quick quiz.

How many times does the U.S. Constitution mention God?

How many times does it talk about the Bible?

In what sections does it address Christianity?

The answers: None, none and none.

As for religion, as physicist Ellery Schempp recently observed, the Constitution “mentions religion just twice, and both times the word ‘no’ is attached.”

I met Schempp last month in Madison, Wis., and listened with keen ears to his speech to the annual Freedom From Religion Foundation convention. The national organization of state-and-church separationists honored him with its “Champion of the First Amendment” award.

(The group gave awards to several other folks, too, including best-selling author Christopher Hitchens and me. More on that another day, but everyone’s speech and information about the foundation are at www.ffrf.org.)

Schempp, now 66, is one of the most reasonable, sanguine and thoughtful people I’ve met in awhile. He is also an atheist, as were many of the 750 or so convention attendees. In addition to atheists there were agnostics, secularists, humanists, pagans and theists like me: people who practice a religious faith but do not want ours — or any religion — to be allowed to wreck one of the greatest things the United States has going for it.

“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

That sentence is in the First Amendment to the Constitution, in the Bill of Rights. The other reference to religion, as Schempp pointed out, is in Article VI, which states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

For an atheist, Schempp knows his Bible very well. (Come to think of it, he knows it better than many Christians I’ve run across.) He’s studied it along with the holy books of other faiths which, he likes to remind people, are viewed by the U.S. government as equally worthy of protection to exist.

“The Bible never once mentions democracy, a republic or anything related to American values,” he said. “The Bible never once mentions freedom of speech or freedom of religion … separation of powers and limitations on the power of the executive; nor an independent judicial branch … elections or voting. The Bible provides no model for ‘good’ government or for personal freedoms. It is a purely religious/theological document.”

Schempp’s education in — and commitment to — the constitutionally prescribed separation of church and state began in his teens when he and his family were Unitarians living in suburban Philadelphia. In 1956, two years after Congress inserted “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance, Schempp challenged a Pennsylvania law that required the reading of 10 Bible verses each morning in public school classrooms, recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and then the Pledge of Allegiance.

About two dozen other states had similar laws.

The 16-year-old asked for help from the American Civil Liberties Union — he sent a 10-dollar bill with his letter — and set in motion what would become a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision. In 1963, the court ruled 8-1 that Bible reading and non-private prayer in public schools was unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

Please take a moment to note that majority. Not 5-4 in a time of activist liberal judges, but 8-1 in a court descended from the Eisenhower Era.

Schempp’s family was both congratulated and reviled. As he told the Freedom From Religion audience, he learned later that the principal of his high school had written “letters of disrecommendation to every college I applied to.”

One letter, of the more than 5,000 the Schempps received — and answered! — still speaks volumes to Ellery Schempp. It concluded, “In the name of Christ, go to hell.”

Along with a physics teaching career at the University of Pittsburgh, Schempp has spent his adult life advocating for the strength and beauty of the U.S. Constitution and the democratic form of government it was designed to promote.

“The Constitution of the United States of America has proved itself to be a remarkably successful model for decent government,” Schempp said. He also noted, ironically:

“And look how successful separation of church and state has proven to be. The United States has more church-goers, more denominations, and more money donated to churches than any other country in the world. All evidence shows that the secular Constitution has been extremely good for ‘religiousness.’”

What deeply concerns Schempp and the members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and me is the organized effort to unite one idea of church — 189 denominations of Christianity notwithstanding — with the secular state.

About 200 years ago, James Madison (a Schempp favorite) was similarly concerned, warning his fellow citizens that, throughout history, “superstition, bigotry, and persecution have accompanied the union of religion and government.”

Given the kind of collective fear that Americans have experienced since 9/11, we now find ourselves “living in an age of belief in silly things,” said Schempp. Too many people choose to slide into simple-minded beliefs about not just religion, but a whole host of “stuff related to magical thinking and supernaturalism,” be it images of the Virgin Mary in food items or alien abductions.

In such a time, Schempp said, “separation of church and state is all the more important — it does government no good to rely on magical thinking, and it does religion no good to be separated from reality.”

The oft-repeated notion that Christianity is “under threat of annihilation” in the United States, Schempp said, is not only “absurd,” it is contradicted by the evidence. Churches proliferate, believers proliferate and “the Christian right are thriving — and flush with political power. And have huge amounts of money. And claim to speak for all Americans.”

Christianity isn’t in jeopardy, our hard-won and carefully-crafted approach to government is — and with it the very thing that makes this nation unique now and in history.

“The danger is that by wrapping God up in political discussion, we short-circuit and short-change the public square of discourse,” Schempp said. “Claiming that your idea is more godly than mine or that some people are more ‘chosen’ or more ‘saved’ than others is bad politics and bad religion … Discussion about the complexities of dealing with terrorist threats and bad governments here and abroad is impaired when God and religion are mixed up with patriotism.”

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or stephanie.salter@tribstar.com.