By Joseph L. Conn
The right-wing Alliance Defense Fund sent out a fundraising email this week that sounded a familiar Religious Right theme.
“You’ve likely heard the phrase: ‘the separation of church and state,’” it said. “But did you know it’s NOT in the U.S. Constitution? The phrase has been misused by opponents of the Gospel IN OUR OWN COURTS to erode your freedom. It’s a distortion of what the First Amendment intended.”
Showing a picture of a cross smashed by a judicial gavel, the ADF asked for donations to fight “the ACLU and its allies” – that would be us – who “have twisted history by using the so-called ‘separation of church and state’ as a legal platform to restrict your religious freedom.”
For 30 years, Religious Right propagandists have preached this misguided gospel. And I’m sorry to say that some unwary Americans have bought into the lie.
But the good news is: most haven’t!
The First Amendment Center released its annual “State of the First Amendment 2011”national survey this week, and there were nuggets of good news in the public opinion poll reported there.
Asked whether “the First Amendment requires a clear separation of church and state,” 67 percent of respondents said yes (with 48 percent “strongly” agreeing). Only 28 percent disagreed (with just 17 percent saying they “strongly” disagree).
Now, I’ll be the first to say that I wish the affirmation number was even higher. But it’s a good thing that two-thirds of Americans recognize that our Constitution provides for a “clear separation” between religion and government.
The survey also found widespread support for broadly based religious freedom.
Pollsters asked “Do you feel that the freedom to worship as one chooses applies to all religious groups regardless of how extreme their views are, or was it never meant to apply to religious groups that most people would consider extreme or fringe?”
Two-thirds of Americans said religious liberty applies to all groups.
Charles C. Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, hailed Americans’ endorsement of church-state separation.
“This is somewhat surprising,” he said, “given the decades-old culture-war fight over the meaning and scope of separation. For decades now, Christian-nation advocates have tried to convince Americans that ‘separation of church and state isn’t in the First Amendment.’ They have peddled a revisionist account of a ‘Christian America’ that should (at best) tolerate other faiths to reside here.
“Apparently,” Haynes said, “the American people aren’t buying the propaganda. It’s true that the actual words ‘separation of church and state’ aren’t in the Constitution. But as the majority of Americans understand, the principle of separation clearly is.”
The poll results, however, must not be a signal for civil liberties activists to rest on their laurels. Even though Religious Right activists are in the minority, they are well-funded, well-organized and aggressive – fired by the kind of religious zeal that doesn’t give up easily. Those of us who believe in separation of church and state must be ever-alert and ready to thwart their theocratic agenda.