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Past Presidents on The Wall of Separation

In honor of President’s Day, Americans United for Separation of Church and State put together a list of quotes from various presidents regarding religious liberty as it pertains to government. It’s a wonderful list including presidents from Washington to Grant to Carter.

The article starts off with this introduction…

Most people know that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were great champions of church-state separation. But did you know that James K. Polk had some interesting things to say, as did U.S. Grant?

Some of my favorite quotes from the list:

James K. Polk: “Thank God, under our Constitution there was no connection between Church and State.” (Diary entry, Oct. 14, 1846)

Theodore Roosevelt: “I hold that in this country there must be complete severance of Church and State; that public moneys shall not be used for the purpose of advancing any particular creed; and therefore that the public schools shall be nonsectarian and no public moneys appropriated for sectarian schools.” (Speech, Oct. 12, 1915)

Lyndon B. Johnson: “I believe in the American tradition of separation of church and state which is expressed in the First Amendment to the Constitution. By my office – and by personal conviction – I am sworn to uphold that tradition.” (Interview with Baptist Standard, October 1964)

Check out the rest of list to see some thoughts from our past presidents.

These quotes are an important reminder that, despite the preferential treatment the religious right feels they deserve when they claim the United States is a “Christian nation,” our Constitution was very explicit, both in what it says and what it doesn’t say. There is no mention of any gods or creators… no mention of the Christian religion or the Ten Commandments… no mention of any special rights for Christians or any religion. It does, however, explicitly say that no laws can be passed “respecting an establishment of religion” and that government cannot “prohibit the free exercise thereof.”

Those two clauses in the First Amendment of our Constitution, called the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause,  are generally considered the foundation of our wall of separation between church and state. As Justice David Souter said in a 1994 Supreme Court case, Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet, “government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion.”

So, even putting aside the irrational, baseless nature of many claims of theistic religions, our country’s founding document gives no religion any preferential treatment by the government or, indeed, any preference in the general running of our country. If Christians (or any other religion, though fundamentalist Christians are the ones who seem to whine the loudest about this issue) want their ideas to be seriously considered, then they should give serious reasons for their consideration.

…and quotes from the bible are most definitely not serious reasons.

Bush is now a motivational speaker

George W. Bush has started making the rounds as a motivational speaker and was given a warm welcome at a Texas event attended by around 15,000 people. He was speaking along with Colin Powell, Terry Bradshaw, and Rudy Giuliani among others. Bush was not the headliner of the event and only spoke for about thirty minutes. According to the article, he seemed relaxed and received a standing ovation.

From the article…

…[Chris Clarke, 25, a salesman from Dallas] said, it could turn out that Bush may be more suited to motivational speaking than being president. He said when Bush misspeaks, it sounds “incompetent if you are president. But here it can be inspiring. It makes him seem like a regular guy, no better than me.”

I can easily see that. The “Down Home” personality would play well to a casual audience that’s looking for motivation and fun stories. On the world stage as president… not so much.

However, here’s the part that I found disconcerting… though unsurprising. During his talk, he frequently mentioned his faith in God. Part of his talk…

“I don’t see how you can be president without relying on the Almighty. Now when I was 21, I wouldn’t have told you that, but at age 63, I can tell you that one of the most amazing surprises of the presidency was the fact that people’s prayers affected me. I can’t prove it to you. But I can tell you some days were great, some days not so great. But every day was joyous.” That, he attributed, to the prayers of others.

People’s prayers affected him. The fact that every day was joyous, he attributes to the prayers of others. In the words of Yoda, “That is why you fail.”

I’ll go out on a limb here and agree that, if you believe in prayer and you know someone is praying for you, it may help you psychologically, knowing that there are people who support you… in the same way you know people support you when they say “Good luck!” or “I love you!” or “Have a nice life!” (Okay… maybe not that last one). Perhaps that’s what Bush meant when he said that people’s prayers affected him… but I doubt it. His reference to the Almighty would indicate that he is talking about the spiritual, supernatural power of prayer.

I find it disturbing that any world leader (or local leader for that matter) would rely on the “Almighty.” It seems to me that a reliance on rational thinking, both his own and that of his advisers, would be a far more critical and useful reliance. Getting support from real people in the real world is not only more practical, it’s… well… real. If a president wants to rely on a supernatural being to give him warm fuzzies and reduce his stress level, that’s fine. If that same president wants to rely on supernatural beings to give him advice on policy and help with decision making, there’s a serious, serious problem.

I’m glad Bush has moved on to motivational speaking.

This is encouraging.

Here’s a short video of President Obama speaking about science and once again putting it at the top of our agenda as a nation. It’s so nice to hear a president speak about the importance of science with what seems to be at least some modicum of understanding of the scientific process and what it means.

Here are a few bits from the video.

Today more than ever before, science holds the key to our survival as a planet and our security and prosperity as a nation. It’s time we once again put science at the top of our agenda and worked to restore America’s place as the world leader in science and technology.

That was a great start, but what really got to me was this next quote.

Because the truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources. It’s about protecting free and open inquiry. It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say even when it’s inconvenient… especially when it’s inconvenient. Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth, and a greater undrestanding of the world around us.

Free and open inquiry? Evidence not twisted or obscured by politics or ideology? Listening to what scientists have to say? Searching for truth?… via science?! Why, Mr. President!… that’s almost blasphemous!

Seriously, though, I think it’s refreshing to hear. It’s a direct hit against the wave of anti-intellectualism that’s been threatening to poison this country for quite some time. It’s definitely a direct hit against the Bush policies of the past eight years. If only President Obama’s stated goals for science can be achieved, I think it’ll make a huge difference in the success of our nation.

I’d like to add one more, if I may. I’d like to see science promoted in our educational system without the chains of dogma attached to it. Let students learn about the scientific method and about scientific theories without the undertow of religion dragging them down. Teach them what science is and what science does… and what it doesn’t do.

But don’t corrupt it. Don’t water it down and cheapen it by introducing artificially manufactured doubt. Don’t try to pass off superstition and unsupported proclamations as science. Don’t try to skew the evidence or make up evidence where none exists. It only confuses the issue and is educationally unproductive… and counterproductive.

Science comes with its own healthy allotment of doubt and skepticism by its very nature. It’s part of the process. It’s how theories are formed. Let the evidence mitigate the doubt. Let the facts assuage the skepticism. Teach students how to develop their own critical thinking skills so they can determine the validity of existing scientific theories… and create new ones.

Here’s hoping.

Swearing on the Bible

Steve Wells over at Dwindling in Unbelief has a great post about Obama’s second round swearing in.

During “Take Two” of the Oath of Office, there was no Bible used for the ceremony. “So help me God” was still tacked on the end, despite the words’ glaring absence in the Constitution, but the lack of a Bible was a step in the right direction.

As Steve puts it…

The Bible, of course, is worse than useless when it comes to consistent advice on morality. But the New Testament (to avoid confusion, ignore the Old Testament on this one) is pretty clear about one thing: Christians shouldn’t swear. Not to God and not on the Bible or on anything else.

He then quotes Matthew 5:34-37

34 But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

…and James 5:12

12 Above all, my brothers, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your “Yes” be yes, and your “No,” no, or you will be condemned.

…to back up his argument. That seems pretty clear to me. Not only shouldn’t the Bible be used (according to the Bible itself), but the swearing in shouldn’t happen at all! Evidently, it’s a pretty UN-Christian thing to do.

So if our Constitution requires our President to take an oath of office, which is contrary to what the Christian religion allows, does that mean that our country isn’t a Christian nation?

I love irony.