People For the American Way Foundation

America as a ‘Christian Nation’ Panel at the National Press Club

On November 8, 2011, People For the American Way Foundation hosted a forum at the National Press Club entitled America as a ‘Christian Nation’ — A conversation with experts on religion, history, law and the Constitution. The panel of experts discussed the historical and political forces behind the often-peddled myth that America was founded specifically as a Christian Nation and the effects of this narrative in today’s religious and political dialogue.


  • Dr. John Ragosta is the author of Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia’s Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution and Secured Religious Liberty (Oxford University Press, 2010).
  • Jamie Raskin, Director of the Law and Government Program, American University’s Washington College of Law, is a Maryland State Senator and a People For the American Way Foundation Senior Fellow.
  • Dr. Julie Ingersoll, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Florida, is author of Evangelical Christian Women: War Stories in the Gender Battles and is writing a book on the influence of Christian Reconstructionism. She is a regular contributor at Religion Dispatches.
  • Rev. Dr. John Kinney is Dean of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University and the immediate past president of the Association of Theological School. He has served as the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Beaverdam, Virginia for over 30 years.
  • The conversation will be moderated by People For the American Way Foundation Senior Fellow Peter Montgomery.

America as a ‘Christian Nation’ full transcript

Participants: Peter Montgomery, John Regosta, Jamie Raskin, Julie Ingersoll, John Kinney, Audience Questioners

Peter Montgomery:     We all set?  Good morning, thank you all for joining us.  I am Peter Montgomery.  I’m a senior fellow at People for the American Way Foundation, which for 30 years has promoted Constitutional principles of religious freedom separation of church and state, individual liberty and equality under the law for all Americans.  So we’re here today, one year before the 2012 elections to talk about a phenomenon that is not new this year and is not unique to this election cycle, but one that has been much in evidence  as we talk about the ways that religion and polices are being mixed this year.

And that is the assertion that America is, or was meant by its founders to be a Christian nation,  a country created of, by and for Christians.  And this Christian nation rhetoric takes several forms.  We have the revisionist history of David Barton, a Republican Party and religious right activist who misrepresents American history to buttress his claims that the founding fathers set out to create a Christian nation.

It takes the form of exclusionary rhetoric by political leaders like Texas governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry, who teamed up with some of the nation’s most divisive figures for the prayer rally that he used to essentially launch his presidential campaign.  And it takes the form of overt religious bigotry by people like Brian Fisher, a radio host and spokesperson for the American Family Association who claims that the First Amendment does not even apply to non-Christian faiths, and to others that claim that Islam that is not a religion and that American communities should not allow Muslims to build mosques to worship in.

Religious right leaders are also claiming a religious grounding, a biblical mandate for far right economic policies.  David Barton, for example says, “All American policies should be based on the bible.”  And the way he reads the Bible, Jesus is opposed to minimum wage laws, progressive taxation, capital gains taxes, estate taxes, and collective bargaining.  The government, we’re told, has no right to try to alleviate poverty.  It’s the Christian nation meets tea party nation.

So why does all this matter?  Christian nation rhetoric is not just about words.  Those words reflect ideas about the nature of our government and our society.  They are promoted on television, radio, and the internet, taught in universities and law schools like Regent and Liberty and endorsed by public officials, including some who want to be president of the United States.  Some of the policies promoted by Christian nation advocates undermine Constitutional principles of religious liberty, equality, and opportunity.  Policies that would erase progress towards legal equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans, that would eliminate access to abortion and reproductive health care for women, that would turn public schools into venues for proselytizing and religious coercion.  And from a broader perspective, we believe it’s wrong, divisive and detrimental to our communities and to the common good to declare that some Americans have favored status based on their religious beliefs and that others should simply be grateful to be tolerated.

We don’t think that’s what America stands for, so there is much here to talk about.  And we are fortunate to have a particularly thoughtful group of panelists that are going to take a look at this from a variety of different angles.  I am going to introduce them in the order that they are doing to speak:  Dr. John Ragosta is a resident fellow at Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the author of Well-spring of Liberty, how Virginia’s religious dissenters helped win the American Revolutionand secured religious liberty, published last year by Oxford University Press.  Jamie Raskin is director of the Law and Government program at American University’s Washington College of Law, a Maryland state senator and a People for the American Way Foundation senior fellow.

Dr. Julie Ingersoll is an associate professor of religious studies at the University of North Florida and a regular contributor to the online magazine Religion Dispatches.  She’s the author of Evangelical Christian Woman, War Stories in the Gender Battles and is currently writing a book on the influence of Christian reconstructionism.  Dr. John Kinney is dean of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor school of theology at Virginia Union University and the immediate past’s president of the association of theological schools.  He has served as the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Beaver Dam, Virginia, for over 30 years.

Our panelists will speak for themselves.  I don’t expect that we will all agree on every angle of every issue that comes up today, but I do think we’ll all leave with plenty of food for thought, so we are going to hear from each of them.  We’ll give them an opportunity for them to ask questions of each other or engage with something that one of the others said, if they have a desire and then I will probably take the prerogative to ask a few questions and then we’ll turn it over to all of you, thank you.

John Ragosta:             Thank you, Peter.  I think most people are generally familiar with the fact that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison supported the notion of a separation of church and state, emphatically rejected the idea that the United States is in any way a formally or officially a Christian nation.  Jefferson, talking about religious freedom, said that, “It was meant to comprehend, within the mantel of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohammadan, the Hindu and the infidel of every denomination.”

Now, there weren’t a lot of Hindus in 18th century Virginia, but there was a recognition that this is what religious freedom is about and where we’re moving.  Now more recently, members of the Supreme Court and a number of historians have begun to question the centrality of Jefferson and Madison.  Why should we look to Jefferson and Madison to understand religious freedom rather than the other hundred founding fathers, or other people in the 18th century.

And I think there are a number of responses to that, but I’m not going to give any of them today.  Instead, I’m going to talk about some other people who in fact where central to the development to religious freedom in the 18th century and early 19th century America. And people we tend to forget, but who’s voice we really do need to hear, and these people were equally adamant that we had to have a strict separation of church and state, equally adamant that the United States was not formally or officially a Christian nation.  And I’m referring to Virginia’s evangelical Baptists and Presbyterians of the 18th century.  Now, these people were central to the debate.  They were central to the adoption of the Virginia statute for establishing religious freedom and they demanded separation of Church and State and expressly rejected the notion that we were a Christian nation.

Their petitions to the Virginia assembly were often worded with phrases like Jews, Mohammadans, and Christians of every denomination deserve protection.  Jews, Turks, pagans, and Christians, avowed infidels, those who are not professors of the Christian religion.  Listening to Peter talking about people who say the First Amendment is only about Christians – the people who were responsible for the development of religious freedom rejected that notion and in fact, when there was a proposal to benefit the Christian religion they wrote in another petition from a group said, why then, are pagans and Mohammadans compelled to contribute to the support of the Christian religion? So they rejected this idea.

John Leland, who was one of the most famous preachers in 18th century Virginia would explain this and he said, look, Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world, that give to Caesar what is Caesars, the gates of Hell shall not prevail against my church, we don’t need government assistance.  We don’t want government assistance.  The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever, he said, “But if all the souls in the government were saints of God, should they be formed into a society by law, that society could not be a gospel church, but a creature of state.”

Now, my book goes into this in much more detail, I don’t have time to get into all of the specifics, but I think it’s critical to ask why did these 18th century evangelicals reject this idea of any kind of a Christian nation.  And they did so for a number of reasons.  First, they were very familiar with the history of persecution.  Over half of Virginia’s Baptist ministers at the time of the American Revolution suffered jail time for preaching.  Now that’s critically important.  These people knew what they were talking about when they were talking about church state relations.

Over half had suffered jail time for preaching.  They would say things like the crucifixion of Jesus was the first fruits of the cooperation of church and state, so they had this historic perspective on persecution.  But they also had theological reasons that compelled them to reject the notion of cooperation of church and state and any kind of Christian nation.  The first theological reason is that government has no power over the church, and we are forgetting who is responsible for the church.

And they would write to the Virginia legislature and say things like, “if you have the power to pick even Christianity, then you also have the power to pick a denomination of Christianity or some other religion.”  Presbyterians wrote in October of 1776, “There is no argument in favor of establishing the Christian religion, but what maybe pleaded with equal propriety for establishing the tenants of Mohammad, by those who believe in the al Koran.”  Very relevant to today’s debates when people say, well, they don’t have separation of Church and State in the Muslim world and you say, well, that’s true and what do you want?  Do you want religious freedom like they have it or do you want religious freedom like these people were fighting for in the 18th century?

A second theological reason, very closely related to the idea that there’s no authority in the government is, to whom do we owe our ultimate allegiance? And the 18th century evangelicals spoke very clearly to this.  If there’s any cooperation or aid from the government to the church, any cooperation or aid, they would say, it would turn [Christ’s] ambassadors into state men, which is to alter their divine mission, to degrade their sacred character and debase them to secular interests.  John Leland our minister who I mentioned before said it’s a species of idolatry to get any kind of cooperation of aid from the church or from the government, because you are acknowledging a power that the head of the church, Jesus Christ, has never appointed.  They had a third theological reason as to why they didn’t want any cooperation between church and state, and that is that it interferes with a person’s free will offering to God, and if what God wants is only a free will offering, if people are getting something from the government, even simply a blessing, even simply the notion of this is a Christian nation, that would confuse people about why people were Christians.

Leland referred to it as loaves and fishes, people will think that we are Christians for the loaves and fishes of government indulgence or government endorsement.  Now, I stress these points, and again, we can read a lot about Thomas Jefferson, I think Jamie may talk some about Jefferson, there are a lot of political reasons why we want separation of church and state, but we have tended to forget the theological and religious reasons why we want a strict separation and why we want to reject this notion of a Christian nation.

Now, I think some of the reason for that is intentional.  I think that it’s an intentional effort to confuse a secular government, which we certainly have in this country, and a secular society, which we certainly do not have in this society and the two don’t need to be inconsistent.  Americans are more religious than any other developed country.  More people claim to be Christian.  More people read the Bible, more people go to church on a weekly basis, and yet, if you compare our system of separation with systems in other countries, while Americans are attending church, the Italian government is putting crucifix in public classrooms.  While Americans are listening to Christian music and Christian programs on private, very successful programs on TV and radio, in England, the diminishing congregants are going to a state church and praying for the civil head of the church, the Queen of England.

While Americans give millions of dollars to missions in Germany, they still pay public taxes for the support of ministers.  Now, these are Christian’s nations, formally, officially Christian nations, England, Germany, Italy, France, and yet, you have to ask who has the better.  Newt Gingrich, in talking about the mosque at Ground Zero, declared angrily that the Saudi Arabians would never allow a church at Ground Zero if the shoe were on the other foot.  He’s correct about that, but once again, we have to ask where we stand on religious freedom.  Now, this can be abused.  The notion that we have a secular government is sometimes misused to urge a secular society and that’s certainly something that Jefferson never suggested or would have supported, but he did emphatically join with the 18th century evangelicals in demanding a separation of Church and state.  Now, finally and I’m not going to go get into it with any great depth, we can get deal with it later and Peter referred to the misuse of history that people like David Barton and others, this notion that Jefferson signed his documents in the year of our Lord Christ.  I was at Monticello last year.  They have 19,000 Jefferson letters, none of them are signed in the year of our Lord Christ.  That’s just simply a twisting of history.  The notion that the Constitution is dated in the year of our Lord – well, you know, as with many misstatements, there’s always a kernel of truth, that’s sort of of true, the clerk added that at the bottom after the delegates had voted and left, the clerk writes in at the bottom, in the year of our Lord.  The notion that Jefferson would send Christian missionaries to Indians using government money: again, a distortion of the facts.

I’ll leave with two thoughts.  The one is, we need to remember, I think, these 18th century evangelicals and how devoted they were to this notion of separation of church and state, and the second is to respond to a comment that often comes up:  People will say and I have had historians say to me, well, it depends on what you mean by Christian nation.  And I view this as a feigned objectivity.

We know what is meant by “Christian Nation,” when people use the term in the modern discourse.  If you want to say that more than half the people in this country claim to be Christian, sure, that’s true.  But it’s much like saying this was a white nation in the 1950’s.  Were more than half the people in the country white?  Yes, that was true, but we know exactly what was meant when people said this was a white nation.  It meant if you weren’t part of that majority, you weren’t quite a full citizen.  You didn’t get quite all the rights.  You were subject to discrimination and the same misuse of the term Christian nation is being done today and it’s something that was very expressly and emphatically rejected by our evangelical forbearers.

Jamie Raskin:              So, to follow through on John’s point, the framers were sons of the enlightenment.  And the best of them were scientists, engineers, architects, free thinkers, experimentalists, adventurers, rationalists and enquirers, and if I had to sum it up in a word, I would say the founders were tinkerers.  They wanted to study things, analyze them, and then experiment with them to make them work.  I think of Benjamin Franklin flying his kite to master the dynamics of electricity or inventing the lightening rod or creating bifocals or designing the first public lending library or the first volunteer fire department, or I think of Jefferson planning out the University of Virginia and designing its buildings or trying to work out a better clock in the sense of time.  Or sending Louis and Clark on their famous expedition across the land or doing his endless horticultural experiments.

Now when it came to the Constitution, and organization of our government, they were equally rational and scientific and experimental.  They wanted to plan out a political system that would work.  But of course, what works in politics is not just a matter of efficiency, the dictatorship, after all, works pretty well, but it’s also a matter of principles and values, so what principles and values did they seek to inscribe in the Constitution.  And there were many of them, of course, but the radical innovations were the institution of popular representative government, and the cultivation of pubic reason through the separation of church and state.

The Constitution marked a revolution in human affairs because it replaced the idea of power flowing from God through a king with the idea that powered flowed from the people to the government and after centuries of monarchy and aristocracy, the framers anchored our politics in the first three words of the Constitution, “We the People,” and then sought carefully to divide and distribute political power in the Madisonian way so as to prevent it’s extreme concentration and collapse into tyranny.  As Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in McCullough v. Maryland in 1819, the government of the Union is emphatically and truly a government of the people, in form and substance, it emanates from them.  Its powers are granted by them in order to be exercised directly on them for their benefit.

And so, Madison and the framers were always looking for ways to divide and distribute and check powers one against the other.  From Federalism to the separation of the powers on the national level from the power to impeachment to legislative oversight to judicial review, counter checks and checks were built into the Constitution.  What they sought to institute is the theory of government that goes back to Montesquieu, the first great champion of the separation of powers and his teacher, Montaigne, who taught that cruelty is the great social vice.  And that society should be organized in such a way as to prevent the imposition of organized cruelty through explosions of state fanaticism.  So, it’s both the protection of the people’s will and then the fragmentation of power that prevents assaults on liberty.  Now, this system of divided powers leads directly to the other value compelling our attention, the primacy of public reason and the separation of church and state.  In many ways, this was the most dramatic and historic achievement of the Constitution: the framers radical break from the sordid history in Europe of centuries of crusades and inquisition holy war, endless religious conflict and even witchcraft trials taking place here in the colonies.

Our Constitution declared that the business of government is the common good and the general welfare, things that are tangible, palpable, testable – not the saving of souls or the establishment of religious orders or divine rule on earth.  The First Amendment thus prevents the establishment of religion and forbids interference with anyone’s freedom to exercise or not exercise their own religious liberty.  The Constitution nowhere mentions God and in article 6, it directly forbids any religious test for holding public office.

Under the First Amendment, the Supreme Court has struck down efforts to compel public school students to pray, teacher lead bible readings in the classroom, the teaching of creationist theology dressed up as science, prayers on the high school football team field and so on.  Now, mind you, all that’s been banned has been organized school prayer, not voluntary individual prayer at school.  Like I always say, as long as there are pop math quizzes, there will be prayer in the public schools, but what we have arrived at Constitutionally and what David Barton does not want to face is the conclusion is that government itself may not be Protestant or Catholic or Mormon or Muslim or Buddhist or Christian or Jewish, or monotheist or polytheist or atheist, but government must be tolerant towards all, completely neutral and agnostic with respect to religion and secular in scientific in its own operations and activities.

So, David Barton’s Christian nationalism is completely at odds with our Constitutional doctrine, which for the most part, has built up the wall of separation between church and state that Thomas Jefferson envisioned in his letter to the Danbury Baptists.  Barton’s Constitutional methodology leaves something to be desired. Some of it just involves circulating downloading and circulating concocted quotes from the internet, sending them out to millions of people and then quietly acknowledging later that they were false and were made up, long after they have sunk into the consciousness of his followers.  But even when he hits pay dirt and finds and authentic religious quote from someone who signed the Constitution, like this one from the conservative James Wilson, “Far from being rivals or enemies, religion and law are twin sisters, friends and mutual assistants.  It doesn’t change anything in the slightest terms of the meaning of what the Constitution actually says, much less how it’s been interpreted or how we should understand it.  And for every quote like that, we can marshal far more important quotes from Adams and Jefferson, like this from Adams: “we should begin by setting conscious free when all men of all religions shall enjoy equal liberty, property and equal chance for honors and power, we may expect that improvements will be made in the human character in the state of society.”  Or this from Jefferson in the letter to the Danbury Baptist, “I contemplate with sovereign reference the whole of the American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between the church and state.”

Now, if anything, the random thoughts and insights about church and state of the more secular founders like Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and Madison who actually wrote the First Amendment are more relevant than the pious quotes that Barton pulls down from founders like Wilson or Governor Morris or John Jay, who had much less to do with it.

But in truth, the whole methodology is flawed, unless the quotes go directly to the meaning of the First Amendment and shine light on its proper construction, they’re best understood as expressions of individual opinion about how religious the speaker is or how religious they think they want their family or their community to be.  For example, the James Wilson quote that Barton is so proud of that he uses it to decorate his website, far from being rivals or enemies religion and law are twin sisters, friends and mutual assistants, is in reality a bland and innocuous statement that’s perfectly harmonious with the Constitutional separation of church and state as it is evolved.  Indeed, I would go further and say, even the quotes expressing the most devout religious views, do not undermine, in anyway, the separation of church and state, since, as John pointed out, one crucial value effectuated by the establishment clause is the protection of passionate religious belief and worship against a state that’s been taken over by a rival sect that seeks to crush or thwart its religious opponents.  And this value has been vindicated periodically throughout our history by the Supreme Court in cases like Santa Fe v. Dough about a decade ago, which struck down an official prayer at high school football games in Texas and was brought by Catholics and Mormons in the community who were being harassed by the Southern Baptist majority. So I don’t know what makes Barton think that discovering the piety and religious zeal of certain framers undermines the Constitutional importance of the separation of church and state.  It just reinforces it.

The key to understanding Barton and its movement is that it would not be much troublesome about them if they wanted to really pursue their religious faith instead of religious tyranny: the imposition of their religious views through government.  I’m not even especially troubled by his telling his followers that America is a Christian nation, since he obviously has the freedom of speech and since it’s a plausible hypothesis as a sociological claim.  As John was saying that there are more Christians than adherents of other faiths here, in that sense, you could say, if you want too that we are a Christian nation the way you can say, I suppose that India is a Hindu nation, although it’s a secular Constitutional democracy.  I’m not quite sure why you would want to unless you had ulterior political motives and it’s not a very nice thing to say, necessarily to everybody else. But in the strict demographic sense, it’s not necessarily inaccurate, but as a Constitutional claim, a claim about the nature of our government, the claim that America is a Christian nation is preposterous and pernicious, and it betrays the original meaning of the First Amendment and it denies more than two centuries of our Constitution and jurisprudential development.

And we do have to observe that the actual purpose and effect of injecting this religious claim into politics is never to make people more virtuous or more charitable or more empathetic or more holy, but rather to advance specific political agendas.  Sometimes the agenda is to wrap the aura of religiosity and holiness around a particular political party or faction.  Sometimes it’s to try to turn government into an instrument of religious proselytizing and sometimes it’s just to try to show religious minorities who’s the boss, and sometimes it’s all of the above.

I remember when I took a sabbatical back in 1997 and I was working for the ACLU’s Washington office as a First Amendment council, and it was during controversy about the ten commandments that was set off when Alabama judge Roy Moore insisted on hanging the Ten Commandments behind him in the court room, inducing thou shalt not kill, even though he was the leading administer of the death penalty in the state of Alabama. But I got a call from Congressman Conyers, then the chairman of the House Judicial Committee, who said that the Republicans on the Committee were seeking to enact a resolution to endorse the Ten Commandments, and was this Constitutional?  So, I reminded him to tell them about the establishment clause and that there would be no religious test for public office and he brought it to his colleagues, and he called me back and said they weren’t much interested in that, do you have any other arguments?

And so I said, well, if you are going to vote on the Ten Commandments, maybe you should have to vote on each commandment separately, so you can’t get away for voting for the omnibus package (and thereby making some people take the name in the Lord in vain while they were voting for it).  But the House proceeded to endorse the Ten Commandments on a vote of 295 to 125, I mean, even taking the vote, if you think about it is not only unconstitutional but blasphemous in some sense. But in truth, this bit of pandering really did nothing other than to create sectarian animosity in Congress.  Minority religionists were offended, while those in the majority got to reaffirm their own privilege religious status.  Not as a matter of faith or communion with God, but rather simply as a matter of raw political power.

And too often, that’s what these attempts to legislate religion or impose religion as a dogma in the public space are really all about, so I would encourage everybody to look at the real views of the founders to remember the separation of church and state as a central article and in some sense the great achievement of the American Revolution, and then for people to pursue their own religious beliefs in a way that is in accord with the public faith of America, which is one of toleration of diverse religious opinions and ideas.

Julie Ingersoll:            Great, thank you.  Good morning.  I want to start by thanking People for the American Way for hosting this event.  It’s a real luxury for me, being in another part of the country, to have the opportunity to come to Washington and exchange these sorts of ideas with other people working on them.  It’s a lot of fun.  If a claim that America was founded as a Christian nation were nothing more than mythic history, it would be interesting to religious studies scholars like me, but probably less so to most of you in this room.  But myths are rarely just myths, in fact, myths convey a group’s sense of its identity and they legitimate a certain ordering of society.

In the example under consideration today, the folks who invoke the Christian American history narrative do so to legitimize policy positions that they believe to be rooted in the Bible.  The link between narrative and policy is clear in the goals of David Barton’s Wall Builders, one of the key groups disseminating Christian American history.  From their website, they indicate that Wall Builders seeks to educate the nation concerning the godly foundation of our country and provide information onto federal, state, and local officials as they develop policies that reflect biblical values.

According to Barton, capital gains taxes, regulations on wages, progressive income taxes and inheritance taxes are all unbiblical.  According to Barton, illegal immigration is the result of disregard by an unbiblical government for national boundaries that are set up by God.  The fight against global warming is based in unbiblical views about the relationships between humans and God’s created order and government assistance to the poor is nothing less than tyrannical socialism.  These are just a few of the many policy positions that Barton finds answered in the Bible.

Yet, when I write about them, I get comments from incredulous, more progressive Christians who claim that these views are not at all biblical and not at all Christian.  My purpose here is to explore Barton as an exemplar and a representative of the Christian nation advocates, and look at how he reads the Bible to come to these conclusions.  I want to start with the disclaimer that I am not a biblical scholar and I’m not here to try argue what the Bible really says.  In fact, I actually think that’s the wrong question.  The Bible that we have is a collection of fragmented texts written over very long period of time, in different cultures, assembled into larger texts and then chosen from an even larger collection of texts in a political process, translated from ancient languages and finally interpreted in different ways by different faith communities.  Every stage of that process is profoundly disputed by scholars and practitioners alike.  Moreover, to think of the Bible we now have as a coherent, singular document that can be read from start to finish, to yield a clear, undisputed objective meaning is just plain mistaken.  There is always an interpretive framework, a hermeneutics under any reading of it.  And in the case of Barton, that framework is shaped by the work of Rousas John Rushdoony and the Christian reconstructionists.

Last spring, outside the convention of Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom coalition, James Salt of the progressive Catholics United offered Congressman Paul Ryan a copy of a Bible, notated to highlight passages about Christian obligations to the poor.  Congressman Ryan refused the bible and to the glee of religious progressives, the video of the exchange went viral.  As Sarah Posner at Religion Dispatches wrote about the exchange between Ryan and progressive Christians, “While there is value in showing that different faith communities read the text differently, it’s a mistake to try to base policy on the bible, even a progressive reading of it.”  Yet, Barton’s pronouncements about what the Bible says carry significant weight in certain circles and contemporary America.  So, it’s worth understanding where they come from and exploring the underlying framework that makes them seem coherent from within.

What Barton says about policy strikes those outside his world as bizarre, because his interpretive framework is so far afield from mainstream Christianity, which emphasizes a more spiritual reading of the text, a New Testament replacing the Old Testament in a move from law to grace and a version of Jesus that fits in modern sensibilities about kindness, gentleness, peace, the “turn the other check Jesus” if you will.  Much of my work focuses on Christian reconstructionists, the world view they developed and it’s ongoing popular dissemination.  It’s not to say that Republicans are secretly theocrats, so let’s just set that aside, but rather to trace out the influence of this movement.

Its influence is evidenced in the framing and language used by folks like David Barton, if you have an ear for it.  I think of this an analogous as the way to which New Englanders can hear the difference between a Maine accent and a Boston accent or how the southerner can tell if the speaker is from North Carolina or South Carolina.  It’s subtle, but it’s undeniably there.  Barton does not explicitly identify as a reconstructionist, although he occasionally sites the work of Rushdoony, promotes views on slavery based entirely on Rushdoony’s work and has formal and informal ties to several reconstructionist people and reconstructionist groups, including the Providence Foundation.  Some of the more distinctive reconstructionist troops he regularly invokes include the notion of dominion, biblical law, the necessity of bringing every area of life under the lordship of Christ, focusing on biblically ordained institutions and sphere sovereignty.

The first aspect of Barton’s biblical interpretation that stumps progressive observers is that unlike most mainstream contemporary Christians, Barton and his tribe see the Bible as a coherent whole, from Genesis to revelation.  There are parts of the Old Testament that they see as no longer applicable by virtue of being ceremonial law and fulfilled in Christ, and inconvenient parts that they pretend don’t exist – but by and large, old and new are integrated, they call this the unity of scripture.  This is a view developed by John Calvin in the reformation and is in some ways influential in all of Protestantism. But like Calvin’s predestination, it’s today, self-consciously embraced in its full form in only some of the most extreme branches of Protestantism like Christian reconstruction through which Barton likely encountered it.

The God who commanded Moses to commit genocide in Deuteronomy 20 verse 1 saying, “You must utterly destroy the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizites, Hivites, and Jebusites,” (can’t believe I got those all out!)  “Just as the Lord your God has commanded you,” is the same God worshiped in the New Testament as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The way these Christians understand the Trinity makes Jesus present at Creation and throughout the whole Old Testament period.  Indeed, it’s the reason they insist that Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God, and one of the reasons the Genesis account of creation is so important to them.

This God, whose greatest act of love is the violent execution of his own son, himself, as the only adequate resolution of sin is a wrathful, vengeful God who reigns down judgment on disobedient nations.  This serves as both warning to the faithful to bring the nation into conformity with biblical law and potentially justification for the destruction of those outside the covenant.  So for these Christians, most of the explicit condemnations in the Old Testament are still applicable, and thus condemnations don’t strike these folks as outside the character of God the way they might other Christians.  The rejection of a discontinuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament shapes their understanding of the character of God, and his relationship to us as individuals and nations.

To explore Barton’s application of the Bible to specific policy questions brings us to another point at which the influence of Rushdoony and the reconstructionist is important.  The framework Barton uses to discern the application of Biblical texts to all areas of life also developed in a post reformation period.  This framework provided the basis for Rushdoony’s biblical interpretation and it undergirds almost all of his work and he is the one who framed it in the way that it is popularized in contemporary evangelical theology.  In Rushdoony’s version of sphere sovereignty, sometimes called jurisdiction, God ordained three distinct realms of authority over which he along remains the ultimate authority.  Those spheres are civil government, church government, and family government.  The institutions in each sphere are given authority over aspects of life and believers are obligated to submit to the leaders God places in charge in each.  Civil authorities or magistrates, as they call them following Calvin, pastors and fathers.  Families are the central institution for the exercise of dominion and charged with raising children.  Churches are charged with teaching and preaching the gospel, nurturing families in their responsibilities and warning against the tyranny of civil government, especially in the hands of unbelievers.  Civil government, rightly constrained is limited to the protection of property and the punishment of evildoers.  More importantly for Barton’s understanding of government is the fact that each sphere is to do only that which is delegated to it by God.

Any task outside the jurisdictional authority are criticized on two points.  They constitute humanism, that is elevating human reason above God’s authority and is socialism, which they understand as allowing the civil government to move toward becoming all-encompassing, encroaching on the other spheres.  The public education is unbiblical because education is primarily a family responsibility and secondarily a church responsibility.  Feeding the poor is the job of families and churches, not the state. So tax schemes designed to fund those illegitimate functions of government are unbiblical and considered legalized theft.  In failing to stop illegal immigration, the government is failing in its biblical obligation to protect private property and seeking to enact policies to limit global warming, the government is intruding on individual and family obligations to exercise dominion.

My sense is that Barton’s notions about limited government stand apart from his biblical justification for it, but this is his framework for reading the Bible and he promotes it as the reason that many government policies are unbiblical and thus a violation of the intention of the founders.  He invokes biblical values among followers, and then he invokes the intentions of the founders in more secular context, drawing on the mythic Christian American history.  Thank you.

John Kinney:               Good morning and I too would like to thank the People For American Way for establishing a context for further discussion of what indeed is a very, very critical issue for this nation that seems to be a recurring one that every time and in every season it manifests itself in different ways with different symbol systems with some of the same fundamental issues.  I started at the outset, I’m not a Constitutional lawyer in any way.  I’m technically not a historian.

In my own research, the 19th and 20th century was the focus of the investigation, but I use history primarily as a formative factor for the construction of theological positions.  And I teach theology.  As was mentioned, I just finished a tenure as president of the association of all accredited theological schools in the United States and Canada.  One of the things that I affirm at the outset as a person of faith – and I don’t apologize for that – I am a Christian, but how I understand what that means is very different from many.  One of the things that I always say and Peter and I have had a discussion about this, that you can never engage another position in such a fashion that you mirror or model what you criticize in them.

It is so easy to identify the demon in another, while failing to recognize the demons that so comfortably abide in you, and so the challenge is, is how do we engage this issue in a way that it’s not reduced, that we in a de facto way give others the authority to define the issue by the way we respond to the issue.  One of the things that I also acknowledge is that difference is a fundamental aspect of creation.  You are always going to have differences, no two tigers or zebras have the exact same stripes, no two leopards have the exact same spots, no two snowflakes have the exact same design.  No two leaves have the exact same vein pattern.  There is argument now, scientifically, that no two flowers have the exact same flower.  No two human beings have the exact same fingerprints, DNA markers or scent. So diversity is a fundamental aspect of the creative order and anytime you are addressing things like faith, you are going to have differences.

One of my problems with perspectives that talk about a Christian nation and dominionism is that it obviates any difference and suggests that there’s only one legitimate perspective on this word and only this perspective is legitimate and those who are outside of this interpretation somehow are faulty or deficient and need to be retrained, reoriented and altered so that they can form with what is the real truth.  But when there is difference, you have to engage it with some sensitivity and the capacity to hear and listen, so on one hand, the separation of church and state to a person of faith is ludicrous.  What do I mean by that?  You don’t take your faith and compartmentalize it in dimensions of your existence.  One of the tragedies in the history of this nation is that there has been, at times, a compartmentalization and did not always address issues of injustice in this nation where the church should have been more visible and responsive to some aspects of the state.

But on the other hand, if we say that they don’t separate if by the sense of, I don’t go around and say that’s a state issue, not a church issue.  You live a life of faith that permeates every aspect of your existence, but on the other hand, and paradoxically, the necessity for the separation of church and state is fundamental and essential and necessary in order for there to be a true and authentic faith. That is, that the state shall not establish, require, obstruct, commend, or favor any religious position.  The separation of church and state becomes essential such that the state in no way defines religion.  If state and religion become coterminous, an authentic faith is obviated.  On one hand, separation of church and state makes no sense, personally, but on paradoxically, it is required and is central for me to maintain that perspective.

From a political and legal standpoint, now, I want to suggest that the doorway to all oppression is a religious oppression.  That almost any other oppression has its roots in religious oppression because once you can establish religious oppression, you give a divine sanction to the oppression that does not require that you critique it or examine it.  It assumes what would be called a self-legitimating facticity because it is no longer our stuff, it’s God’s stuff and once it’s God’s stuff, you don’t question if you got a problem, talk to God.  And I think in the history of this nation and most movements, not just the one we see, often times we already have an existing agenda, and I think it goes to what Julie has said and what has been suggested already by Jamie and John, that there is an existing agenda and we are not necessarily searching for truth, we are searching for any information that will legitimate and give warrant to the agenda that I have.

So I am not promoting truth, nor am I promoting faith.  I am promoting a position and an agenda and in most cases, what I promote is designed to preserve my privilege, power, status and prestige.  And then, the best way to ensure that my position, power, prestige and status is not questioned is to make that position, power, prestige and status a function of divine design and necessary God activity rather than a projection of my culture or context.  Then, once that occurs, what I project would not be questioned.  Now, we could say a whole lot about this, but one of my problems with the whole dominion approach and even some of the national theories, is that not that it takes us to a faith, it destroys the basis of faith.  Because it reduces faith to assent to certain propositions rather than a vital trusting relationship with God, which is dynamic.  In a very real sense, it creates and I think you mentioned, Leland, John, it creates a new religion which engenders a form of idolatry where you are no longer faithful in relation to God, but you are in harmony with a state design.

The other aspect of this is it necessarily creates a hierarchy of supremacy and exclusion where there are, you become the very religion that I would see Jesus coming to transcend and destroy.  Where you think you have in favor and intrinsic value and a superior status because you belong to a certain religion.  Now, what in the end of this is it creates a hierarchy of supremacy that not only negates other citizens, but even creates ranks within the Christian community.  There are inferior and superior good and bad Christians based upon this approach, this reconstructionist approach as we would begin to assess a legitimacy and truth.  I have a real fear in relation to this as to what this has done historically and what it has the potential to do now.

Not to be an agent of healing in this nation, but the fundamental cause of further division, which will create victims, more and more victims and also create a system where the victimization is legitimate because it’s divinely sanctioned and endorsed.  And finally, I would just like to say in this respect, this hierarchy of supremacy then leads to the diminution of intrinsic respect and value to all of creation and the sacredness of all created in such a sense it tends to create death, rather than flourishing and to diminish both the character and quality of life even for those who call themselves Christian.  I would want to say that I fear state-given direction to religion as much as I fear church-given direction to state.  And if I had a greater fear based upon the evidence of history, that we would be very, very concerned when the church starts defining state.

And we look at the historical consequence of that behavior that has been suggested here in some respects.  I have a great respect for this nation, but whenever we start attempting to say that we are a Christian nation, I will also suggest that we would begin to do some very unrighteous and unholy things and get a pass because we’re Christian.  The reality is then for me that in some ways, I would have to always challenge the suggestion of a Christian nation because a Christian nation with all of what it has done for the good still has flaws and has made some serious  mistakes that I don’t think are in harmony with justice.  I will never forget meetings of international students and they came here and were so impressed with Washington D.C.  They just thought this was wonderful and experience and he said, you know, I have an entirely different interpretation and understanding of you Americans now, of United States citizens.  You are some beautiful and wonderful people, but you are cruelly ignorant of what is done in your name.

The reality is, in that day, I would celebrate the separation so that we can still love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with our God.  And the end result, for me, the debate really doesn’t matter.  It matters, but it doesn’t matter, let me tell you why.  I don’t appeal to the church fathers.  I don’t appeal to the nation’s fathers to establish the foundation for the truth that I affirm.  There’s enough evidence that the church fathers were just as flawed, I mean, that the nation’s fathers, the fathers of the nation were as flawed as anyone else.  I can stand up here and give a litany, if so desired, of some of those flaws, just like people in the Bible were flawed.  I appreciate very much, Julie, when we talk about the nature of the Bible and how we abuse the Bible and its intent by treating it as this kind of monolithic systematic development of a book that goes from cover to cover, with a common theme explaining everything and getting everything right, when you can see all kind of internal contradictions, suggestions, alterations based upon social context. And you can even see, in the Bible, people using God for a political and social agenda.

Now, in the end result for me that if someone argues with me the fathers of this nation said this and that and said this and that, I would have to go to some other things before I make decisions about what I would desire. And ultimately, in conclusion, I would just love to say, I’m not a “Wall Builder.”  I follow a presence that tore walls down and broke down walls and reconnected people with God, with their true selves, with each other and with the rest of creation.  So ultimately for me, there is a strange paradox as a person of faith, my faith permeates everything I do.  And the flip side of that is, an essential aspect of me being faithful is the celebration of the celebration of the separation of church and state.

Peter Montgomery:    Can we have a hand for all our panelists, please.


Peter Montgomery:     Well, that was a tremendously fascinating conversation.  I want to first offer, if any of you have any questions for each other or anything that you want to say in response to what anyone else has said, or should we just—

John Ragosta:             Sure, I just have two brief observations.  The one is something that Jamie said that he skipped over very quickly and I think it really requires one to pause, which is when the Constitution protection of freedom to exercise religion, it also protects your freedom not to exercise religion. And that’s a quintessentially Baptist notion.  I mean, you really have to find that in Baptist theology about a freewill offering, because if you don’t have the ability not to exercise religion, you are not giving God anything.

The second observation I would make is to Dr. Kinney, you know, he says he doesn’t follow the Founders, but he sounds an awful lot like Thomas Jefferson: “the doorway to all oppression is religious oppression.”  I mean, Jefferson, his ultimate insult was to refer to kings, nobles and priests, and the point was that these are all monarchical power authorities who misuse power to prevent people from thinking for themselves, or worshiping for themselves, so it’s a very Jeffersonian concept.

Peter Montgomery:     One of the things that struck me is that one of the myths that are propagated by the Christian Nation crowd and opponents of church state separation is that those of us who support church state separation are hostile to religion and hostile to religious liberty. And I thought one of the themes that really ran through the conversation was the importance of separation of church and state to religious liberty, and I was fascinating to read in John’s book about the Baptist and the Presbyterians and have that sort of extended my understanding of that.  It makes me, one of the things that president Obama received a lot of grief for on right wing websites and Fox News, two speeches where he basically said similar things, which is, you know, that America, whatever it was, is no longer just a Christian nation.  We’re also a nation of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and non-believers.

And I want to say to my mind that that is a statement of reality of the increasing pluralist nature of our country.  And I wonder if you would all comment on why that upset people so much?  Why, what was it about that formulation that so provoked some of the people we have been talking about today, any thoughts?

Jamie Raskin:              Will you repeat the quote?

Peter Montgomery:     Well, there were two speeches.  One that he gave when he was a senator and then one as president when he was in Turkey, to the effect that America is not a Christian nation or it’s not just a Christian nation.  It’s also a Jewish nation and a Muslim nation and a Buddhist nation, and we are bound by a set of values that we share.  And just the first part of that, that we are not a part of that just enflamed a lot of the president’s opponents, a lot of the folks we’ve been talking about.

Jamie Raskin:              Well, I think another theme that ran through our remarks was that the struggle that’s going on in America now to define whether we in fact are a nation committed to the rule of law and the Constitution in which people can practice their faith as opposed to a Christian nation where everybody has to be mobilized to one particular sectarian view, that that’s a struggle that goes all the way back to the very beginning.  So you can find lots of quotes from Jefferson and Madison saying precisely what President Obama said, that we are not a Christian nation, and that you look at the Tripoli compact, the treaty with Tripoli in which expressly that it was avowed that we are not a Christian nation, but we are open to people of all faiths.

That’s the principle founders embraced and advanced at the time and perhaps some people didn’t want to hear it then, clearly some people don’t want to hear it now.  But the difference is that today, we have lots of Supreme Court jurisprudence essentially expressing the same idea, that the government itself cannot take sides on religious questions.  And I think there are still a few lingering issues about that.  There is obviously a lot of tension around the whole one nation under God question in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld in the Newdow case that the addition of the words “one nation under God” to Francis Bellamy’s pledge of allegiance was clearly an attempt to endorse a monotheistic view.

And I remember when the Ninth Circuit found that, there was a storm of protest about that.  I actually got invited to go on one of the right wing talk shows and the host said to me, what is it about one nation under God that troubles people?  And I said, I don’t think it really troubles people, but the court found that this was in addition to the pledge of allegiance that was written by Bellamy in a totally secular way.  You know, Bellamy wrote it in 1892, 400 years after Columbus’ arrival in the new world.  He meant really to stick it to the south because they were still pledging allegiance to the Confederate battle flag and so he wrote it as kind of an angry radical statement.  I pledge allegiance to my flag, of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, very sharp word, with liberty and justice for all.

And then you know, one nation under God was added, interestingly enough, just several weeks after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, at the pushing of several different interest groups including the Knights of Columbus. So anyway, this talk show host said to me, “well if it’s not one nation under God, then what are we?”  And I said, well, if you are an originalist, you go back to the original pledge of allegiance, one nation, indivisible.  And he said, “well, we have been one nation under God for more than 50 years, so if we are not one nation under God, what are we?”  And I said, “I don’t know, one nation under Canada? This would be geographically correct.”

And I said, no in truth, if you really need a substitute, we are one nation under the Constitution, because we don’t have one religious view of political party or ideology, but we do have one Constitution that brings us together that allows people to fully express and pursue their religious views, their moral views, their ethical and political views without legislating one sectarian religious doctrine or creed for everybody.  And the last thing I’ll say about that is often times our friends in the conservative movement will say, well, you’re just upset when we’re out there pushing for prayer in the schools or Christian nation dogma because you don’t like what we stand for politically, but you had no problem with what Dr. King was doing or the great ministers in our history who have fought for social progress, whether its abolition of child labor or minimum wage laws or whatever. And I say that there’s a very important difference.  Dr. King and Reverend Abernathy and Reverend Shuttlesworth, they were not fighting to impose religion for government.  They were fighting for civil rights for everybody and that was a political movement that people could get behind from lots of different religious traditions or no religious tradition at all.

And the fact that they spoke in religious language is wonderful.  That’s part of the freedom of speech and I’ve got no problem with that.  The fact that they invoked great religious traditions in schools of thought, no problem with that, just like no problem with people who go into politics and invoke different philosophical or ethical schools of thought, no problem with that.  The question is, what is it you are trying to legislate? And Dr. King was never trying to legislate one particular religious view.  He was trying to legislate justice and a justice that people could understand across different kinds of religious and ethical views.

John Kinney:               Peter, could I make just one comment?  I think part of the reaction to it is because an inclusive statement like that collapses the hierarchy.  And basically, you feel threatened because that statement assigns value and power to somebody other than us.  That you just included.  Now, because if I would, if I were in a position where we could simply say, what if we reinterpreted Christianity [so it] says that I’m, yep, that’s what it means to be Christian, to be totally receptive, open into celebrating God’s self desplosive activity in other religions or…., So, but the minute that you have a hierarchy, once you acknowledge legitimacy other to something other than my faith, or my position, then I’m threatened.

And not only am I threatened, you are undermining the basic principles of my world view.  So something is—

John  Ragosta:            I think you are not just threatened, you are fearful.

John Kinney:               Yes.

John Ragosta:             And I think the reason people are fearful, I happen to have the census statics with me.  I brought them today that in 1990, there were 20 people, 20 million adults in this country that said they were not Christian.  They were Jewish, Muslim, or non-believers.  In 2008, 43 million adults do not affiliate and that’s well over a fifth of the adult population. And so people are fearful that they were losing some kind of hierarchy.  I would remind them to look abroad however, again, we have formerly Christian nations in Italy and England and Germany – have you been to church in England lately?  Nobody’s there.  And the separation of church and state, the voluntary principle is the best thing that ever happened to religion in this country, which is why Lyman Beecher in the 19th century ministers realized.

That the reason that religion has flourished as much as it has in this country is because of separation.  But I think there is a threat and a fear when people have been used to running the show for so long.

Julie Ingersoll:            I think it’s also a testament to really how widely disseminated Barton’s world view is.  You know, this is the material that provides the basis for American history courses in private Christian schools and in many Christian home schools, and you know, this argument and correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m thinking this is sort of a new development over the past couple of years, even new for Barton, the argument that the First Amendment clause is really only applied to Christianity.

I read Barton’s argument that the First Amendment only applies to Christianity in the context of a friend of the court brief that he filed in a case out in California that had to do with who could be chaplains in the prison system, kind of apart from that. So he made this argument in that particular case, and I have heard it on Wall Builders on a number of occasions and just recently, I try to always bring these discussions back to sort of what’s going on in terms of religion on the ground and just, even currently there is a case in the adjacent county to me, in Florida in Clay County.  The controversy is primarily about a couple of local churches that are going around to public schools at 8:00 in the morning and the ministers are leading pray around the flag pole.  That’s a little controversial because it is at the beginning of the school day and all of that.

But what really happened was one of the principals sent out a letter encouraging everybody to participate in this prayer around the flagpole and in it cited one of those religious leaders who claims that the First Amendment only applies to Christians.  Just last month on an exam in one of my classes where we were talking about the First Amendment, I had three students make this argument.  I have never encountered that argument in the 14 years that I have been teaching these courses and I think that that material is permeating the culture out there.  And so one of the reasons that there was this intense response to that kind of a statement by President Obama is that people are well schooled in these arguments that David Barton and his fellow travelers are putting out there.

Peter Montgomery:     I have a whole bunch of questions, but I will not indulge myself.  I will open it up to the audience.  We’ve got a microphone here, I think what we are going to do is pass this.

Questioner:                 Thank you so much.  This is just so engaging and I really appreciate that.  We live in a time of anxiety where a lot of familiar forms are breaking down, even our identity of what we believe ourselves to be.  And I see people that go either into the past or go deep underground to try to connect up to a founding myth or a founding story.  I want to put this in the framework, more psychological, I’m a psychologist of sorts.  It’s like how do we get our spiritual mojo back?

It’s like we feel like we are facing a lot of dilemmas.  It fragments us, it’s frightening, the times are economically frightening, and for people who believe if you have strayed from a certain way of being that there is a punishment, that there is divine favor or divine rejection, you become very anxious.  Now, I’m not saying that people aren’t manipulating people.  I’m sure they are, politically, but the base who gets very anxious are feeling something so out of sync, it’s lost its access, it’s lost its center, and it’s the belief that something could restore us to being the original national vision, which may be a myth too of a nation that’s a light on the hillside, that’s with the blessing of God, the light of the world.  When we lose that in terms of our economics and loss of world power, how do we find some common point, and again, to get our mojo back, and our belief in our self back and our direction.  Is that possible?

Or is it just a wrestling match?  Thank you.

John Ragosta:             Return America to greatness, well, yeah, American exceptionalism that Sarah Palin’s been very confident about, yapping about.  I guess, it’s obviously a difficult question to answer and I don’t have the answer to that question, but you have to ask what makes America great.  And I’m trying to avoid quoting the epilogue of my new book which won’t be out for a year, because what I argue there is if you want to identify true American exceptionalism, religious freedom is hard to argue with this as something that we delivered to the world and that was central to what this country became, including what this country became religiously, including people’s ability to worship freely. So I certainly would say we ought to look at what is going on around the world and ought to be proud of what we have achieved with the religious liberty in this country.

Jamie Raskin:              But I would recommend that everybody go back and everybody go back and check out JFK’s speech that he gave to the ministers in Houston in 1960, in Dallas, rather.  And compare that speech to the one that Mitt Romney gave, kind of self-consciously emulating JFK, because Kennedy starts off by saying, you know, there are all these questions about my faith. And he said, in truth, that’s really relevant between me and my God and my family.  What should matter is my public faith, not my private faith.  My public faith includes centrally, the belief in the absolute separation of church and state and that’s essential to who we are as Americans and then together, we can tackle the real problems that confront us. And it’s amazing how many he mentioned that are still with us today, poverty in Appalachia, the situation of older Americans and different foreign policy hotspots and so on.

Governor Romney, unfortunately, starts off by sort kind of gesturing at some of the same things that can be talked about in terms of the establishment clause and no religious test for public office, but then at the key moment in his speech he says, but everywhere I go, I’m asked one question over and over again, and that’s do I accept the Lord Jesus Christ as my savior.  And he said, Yes, I do.  So, essentially, he established what Kennedy had called in his speech, an indirect religious test for public office and then set out to pass it for all the world to see, basically because he was dealing with a particular political problem in the primaries. And I think that degraded our discussion about these complicated questions about church and state and religion and politics. And people should really go back to JFK’s famous address that he gave in 1960, because it’s a really extraordinary statement of public values that not too many American politicians would be willing to give today.

I stand re-corrected, it was Houston as I said originally.  When a historian whispers in my ear, it was Dallas, but I thought it was Houston.

Questioner:                 I want to thank the panel, this has been fascinating to listen too.  My name is Amanda Kenith and I’m a professional atheist.  I work for the Secular Coalition for America and I work against religious privileging in law, so it was very interesting in Dr. Ragosta and Dr. Kinney’s remarks, especially.  One of the things, for example, and Mr. Raskin, your comments about religious pandering, we saw last week the House of Representatives take up “In God we Trust” again, and only nine members of the house voted no, which is a much better percentage less than we quoted.

Jamie Raskin:              Speaking as a senator, it is hard to vote against things like that.

Questioner (cont’d):    We made lots of phone calls.  We have lots of laws on the books that cater to religion.  They may have started out for Christianity, for example, churches are exempt from property taxes.  There is the clergy housing privileging.  There are lots of things that benefit not only Christians, but other religious organizations and minorities that do not benefit the general public, non-theists and other charitable organizations.  And I’m wondering if it comes to separation of church and state, as people who are experts in past historical and current theological things, do you think in order to keep true separation of church and state, we would be willing to give those up?

John Ragosta:             I don’t know that we need too in all cases.  You know, Walls v. Tax Commission was the case on tax deductibility of charitable contributions to churches.  And the court has about four different opinions in that case which are somewhat confused, but the notion of saying we’re going to let all charities, including religious charities, be tax deductible doesn’t really bother me a lot.  When there is inequality, the court on the other hand, has struck down, for example, Texas had a law which gave tax deduction to religious publications and the court quite rightly struck that down. Now do we have further to go in purging the laws?  Well, I’m sure there are still a lot of laws on the books that do provide inequality in that manner, but I don’t know that the current balance in the court decisions is that far off.  The court has been getting a lot of criticism and being pushed to the right, which I think is inappropriate, but I’m not sure what else we would purge from the legal system as opposed from the political milieu which is occurring which I think is completely off base.

John Kinney:               I would basically agree, but there’s, one of the things that I would observe that I want to suggest in my comment that as a person of faith, my relationship with you is not defined by what you don’t believe, but what I do believe. And I start out with the assumption that every human being has intrinsic worth, value, and dignity, which is not a function of your religion. So your rights, the issues of justice, fairness and equity are affirmed by what I believe and not a judgment about what somebody else doesn’t believe and therefore, I respond to what they don’t believe.  You understand, that my functioning is a function of what I believe, and I believe that you have every right, every principle of justice, every principle of inclusion, every element and gift and opportunity that’s extended to everybody else is extended to you.

Questioner (cont’d):    And me to you.

Jamie Raskin:              And if I could just add to that, If you look at American history, I believe that our great moments of social progress have come when you have the kinds of religionists that you represent, John, getting together with people across the spectrum from different religions and people who define themselves as humanists or are not necessarily devoted to a particular religious view.  I mean, that’s how progress was made in the civil rights movement, and in the women’s movement, in the peace movement and so on.  It’s never done by one religious sect or by people who define themselves as atheists by themselves.  That’s not how social progress is taken place in America.

Julie Ingersoll:            It also seems to me that these first two questions are in some ways related to each other because my response to the question about the myth making or the “spiritual mojo” as you put it is, I don’t think the problem isn’t that we don’t have one, I think the problem that we as a nation have two.  And we have two that are mutually exclusive and at war with each other.  And as much as I am sympathetic to the goals that your organization is promoting, realistically, I don’t see that going anywhere in the current conflict.  Maybe not going anywhere is too strong because I am hoping that you make progress on all of that, but I can’t see us we are so light, we are so far away from a political culture in which an atheist can be elected president, that the idea of cleansing all of the laws of ways in which religion is privileged is, I think, extraordinarily unlikely.  Until we can, and part of the problem of if the question is, how do we get our “spiritual mojo” back and we sit here and articulate a progressivist vision of what America ought to be, we are just talking amongst ourselves and that’s not going to convince any of those other people that we are talking about.  And I don’t know if there is a way to come to a conversation that can bridge those two mythic narratives.  I don’t know that there is.

But I think that we don’t need our own mythic narrative.  We need one that works for everybody and I don’t know what that’s going to be.

John Kinney:               Could the anxiety we be in, that we find ourselves in, in some ways be affirmed as an aspect of a dynamic process, where we may be discovering a new myth.

Julie Ingersoll:            I think maybe.

John Kinney:               Yeah.

Julie Ingersoll:            I hope so.

John Kinney:               And that it may be part of the process where we feel this tension that we have been able to deny.

Jamie Raskin:              And if I could just add one thing to that point, which I think is right: these problems become very real very quick, so for example, while Governor Perry is obviously bought in with the anti-science theocratic style agenda of saying, of denying the existence of global climate change and global warming.  Here, his state is suffering the worst drought in memory, in history and he’s calling for a day of religious prayer to deal with it and I hope these things work or that one didn’t work.  I mean, I hope they work because I hope something works, but the fact of the matter is, the people of both faith and not faith who get together to say, the Constitution was about creating the use of public reason in public places in government, and we cannot base our government policy on for energy or for the environment on somebody’s religious suppositions.  We’ve got to base it on what we know empirically through science.

Questioner:                 I wish that everybody in the country could hear and would listen to this discussion.  The sad fact is the conservatives have seized control of the public discourse and I could refer to several things that you people and people in the audience have said, but in just setting up what I think is an essential fact, that we have got to work to seize back the discourse. And I think that needs to begin with organizations like People For the American Way and American Civil Liberties Union and others that I belong to to start to educate the people.

And the only way you can educate the people is with 30 second ads, but you can say a lot in a 30 second ad, carry across the country and you can build on that and one thing you could also build would be membership in these organizations.

Peter Montgomery:     Well, I would like to say that we are going to try to get a lot more Americans to hear this conversation.  We have recorded it.  We’ll be probably breaking it into more digestible chunks and putting it online and promoting it, and that this conversation will be part of an ongoing effort between now and the 2012 election to really grapple with the ways that religion is entering into the political debate and to the discussion of issues. And so we definitely are going to be trying to bring this conversation to more Americans in the year ahead.

Questioner (cont’d):    Buy bumper stickers.

Peter Montgomery:     And I encourage everyone who is interested in this to check out People for the American Ways website at and also our blog that gives daily reporting and analysis on the religious right which is and I think those are two usable, good resources for everyone and I got one more comment?

John Ragosta:             I think part of what you say, you have to have alternative messages, goes back to the comment on secularism as well.  I mean, Jamie was talking about the pledge of allegiance.  Professor Eisgruber at Princeton has said, you know, we really ought to offer people the option of saying one nation under law and a lot of people want to say under law, let people who say under God and as long as it’s not state enforced, but at least that gives you another, an alternative message. Because when all you have is a negative message.  And I think equally, when you talk about, without getting into the broader political things.  Because that would get into a whole different discussion, part of the thing that I have been trying to stress to religious people is that there is a religious message about religious freedom, and that message has sort of gotten forgotten. And it’s very important for religious people to, if I’m religious, I must be on David Barton’s side, well, no, that’s not accurate.  There is really religious base to demand religious freedom, so I think part of it is having alternative message.

John Kinney:               And for me, that’s what’s so absolute and critical, that in the very real sense, that there is not a singular expression that somehow affirming separation of church and state prevents idolatry and positions me to be truly faithful.  I’m going to throw something else in my own writing that I deal with.  I have a real problem with the language we even use.  We say one nation under God, guess what we immediately do?  God here, we’re below. Then this becomes the normative way in which God functions, somebody on top, somebody else on the bottom.

So when we practice Godly stuff, what do we do?  We mimic God with somebody on “top” and somebody on the “bottom” and the reason we won’t give up our “over” God, if we give up our “over” God, we would have to surrender our “over practices.” So the minute you see, you go back to the statement where you mention all of these religions, guess what, you just put me among others and for God sakes, you put me among folk who have no religion, we have to get back “over,” cause my world view is predicated upon something on top and somebody on beneath: men, women, come on.  Hmm?  Come on, black, white, oh, excuse me, I got it wrong.

No, you understand, but there is a graded ontological hierarchy and structural hierarchy and I live in a world knowing who is beneath and who is up. And now, you are talking about things that make us all… no, you did mess with my world.  So let’s get it back.  Theologically, what I do is if God is over, and you are under, you are establishing that the place of God is where?  Over. Where is your place?  Under.  It means that you function in the place that God does not inhabit.  So if we are under God, we’re a Godless nation, because we are in a place where God is not.

Peter Montgomery:     I’m going to let that be the final word.  Thank you all for coming.  Please thank you again to our panelists and look for us online.

End transcript