In a few days, on July 4, we once again will commemorate the work and courage of America’s 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Few words are as inspiring as those that rallied patriots in 1776:
When in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed…
Rights endowed by their Creator (“Nature’s God”) and secured by government?
That doesn’t exactly sound like yesterday’s news or today’s understanding of God and government.
Consider these two headlines from just this past week: “NBC dumps ‘under God’ from Pledge at U.S. Open” and “New York Atheists Angry Over ‘Heaven’ Street Sign Honoring Sept. 11 Victims.”
In November 2005, an MSNBC poll asked, “Should the motto ‘In God We Trust’ be removed from U.S. currency?” In March 2004, a CNBC poll asked, “Should the words ‘under God’ be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance?” Then, despite the fact that more than 80 percent responded in the negative to both of those questions, NBC twice omitted the words “under God” from a patriotic montage in which children recited the Pledge of Allegiance during the start of the recent U.S. Open golf tournament. NBC later apologized for the omission after nationwide outrage, but the damage already had been done.
Similarly, Fox News reported last week that some New York City atheists are demanding the removal of a street sign, newly dedicated to honor seven firefighters killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. They say the new street sign, “Seven in Heaven Way,” which was posted in Brooklyn outside the firehouse where the firefighters once served, is a violation of the separation of church and state.
Posting a street sign with the term “heaven” on it is a violation of the separation of church and state?
We definitely don’t live in our Founders’ world anymore, but that doesn’t mean we have to abandon the very principles on which they founded our republic. Freedom of religion and expression (including religious expression) was so fundamental and important to our Founders that they mandated the liberty in the very first part of our Bill of Rights. Whether on street signs, in congressional corridors or at sporting events, government is called to protect (not prohibit) our right to religious practice and speech. As Thomas Jefferson said, “a Bill of Rights is what the people are entitled to against every government … and what no just government should refuse or rest on inference.”
Luckily, we have a Bill of Rights. But the threats against it are constant and growing. The wording of the Bill of Rights is not ambiguous. But people who want to expand the power of government keep chipping away at, modifying and replacing what it actually says.
In 1823, near the end of his life, Jefferson similarly wrote: “On every question of construction (of the Constitution), let us carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.”
The phrase “separation of church and state” actually comes from a letter Jefferson wrote in 1802 to the Danbury Baptists. He told them that no particular Christian denomination was going to have a monopoly in government. His words “a wall of separation between church and state” were written not to remove all religious practice from government or civic settings, but to prohibit the domination and even legislation of religious sectarians. The Danbury Baptists had written to him seeking reassurance that their religious liberty would be guaranteed, not that religious expression on public grounds would be banned.
Liberals would have you believe it establishes a “separation of church and state.” But that phrase appears nowhere in the First Amendment, which actually reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
(Part of the article above is from my most recent New York Times best-seller, “Black Belt Patriotism,” now revised and available in paperback.)