October 6, 2012 Leave a comment
Three years ago, I had the pleasure to interview Terry Kemple, who (by the way) will be on the ballot this year for Hillsborough School Board District 7. Back when I interviewed him, Kemple had helped organize a series of billboards1 around Hillsborough with misleading quotes about the religiosity of America’s founding fathers. Kemple rebutted my point that no historian I had spoken to agreed with the context Kemple’s billboard’s were promoting. “The United States was not founded as, nor was it intended to be, a secular government,” Kemple argued. This disease of America’s evangelical religions makes a few fatal flaws, notably for one, the above assertion that America ought to have a theocratic government. 2 But, Kemple is just a symptom of a larger disease in American evangelical Christianity. A disease that seeks to overturn the Separation of Church and State or, as Kemple said, there is no Separation of Church and State.3
Yet, litigating the constitutional principle of separation and church and state has developed into a fringe movement, not unlike radical animal rights groups (ALF, PETA) or 9/11 truthers. These anti-separationists have self-sustaining forums and websites that aggregate news and re-distribute it through a filter that always argues against the validity and the existence of Separation of Church and state. Behold, this typical gem from SpeakUP, a church rights group:
The Johnson Amendment, upon which [Americans United for Separation of Church and State] bases its letter, is blatantly unconstitutional. Under the First Amendment, the pastor has the right to determine what is said from the pulpit, not the IRS.
It’s ironic that an organization committed to the “separation of church and state” is arguing for more governmental monitoring and control of churches and pastors.
This is the territory this fringe group wants to carve out. Defend your rights by insisting upon the unconstitutionality of limiting a pastor’s speech. Attack the other side by insisting that by fighting you they are undermining their own pro-separationism. Hold on, you’ll soon see the problem with their argument.
I heard about the Pulpit Freedom Sunday event on the Colbert Report. Stephen Colbert summarizes the Johnson Amendment here and then rips Kemple-clone Jim Garlow a new prayer hole. It turned into a character-breaking moment around 2:57 for Colbert when he attacked Garlow from a pro-religious and pro-separation angle. Its pure gold. Although, I will tackle this issue differently. Just keep Garlow’s words in mind.
The anti-separation fringe takes two points that I find hilariously silly. First, they argue that for 166 years before the Johnson Amendment, pastor’s had unrestricted free speech from the pulpit. Garlow indicates the arbitrary nature of the 50 year old Johnson Amendment is a point against it. Essentially, Johnson wanted to punish two Texas businessmen who manipulated tax-exempt organizations to politick against him.. That’s pretty interesting to me. Because another relic of the Soviet era, the legislation of God onto our paper currency, came out of that same period. At nearly 48 years old, its in some ways an even more nonsense government intrusion into religious affairs. Yet, atheists are regularly rebuffed by similar Garlow and Kemple types when they make that very same argument about the ludicrous national mood that gave us “In God We Trust” on our bills.
Additionally they claim that if the Johnson Amendment were enforced, if churches had taxed status forced on them for their politicking, then the IRS would be violating the Separation of Church and State4. Yet they simultaneously argue that the free speech of pastors ought to be subsidized by the government’s bestowed tax-free status. Essentially, that in addition to their tax-free status, Churches ought to go beyond the stated nature of taxed-free organizations “to promote the common good” and shift into the territory of a political action committee.
However, it’s obvious that both moves compromise the integrity of the speaker and violate separation in its purest form. Either a church is punitively taxed for endorsing a candidate, thus having the government’s hands in its coffers and losing separate status or it speaks freely in favor of candidates with tax-free subsidy, thus having transformed into a tax-free political action committee. Both of these options are having your cake and eating it to.
The only pure Separation argument, if religionists really care about being separate from govermnet interference, results from the status quo this whole event means to undermine: taxed-free status and non-involvement in government. No other option is logically possible. This is what Colbert was getting at in the first place. For many Americans, religion offers the only non-secular refuge from the bombardment of politics into every facet of the American experience. It offers the only place for the average American to seek out the transcendent, a necessarily non-Earthly concern. But, by lumping spiritualism with earthy affairs, Colbert thinks, and he’s not wrong, that these Evangelicals are cheapening not just their faith, but capital-f Faith at large.
 Billboards stating: “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. –George Washington” “…we all agree on our obligation to the moral precepts of Jesus. – Thomas Jefferson.” “God who gave us life, gave us liberty. – Thomas Jefferson”
If that last one reads funny to you, it’s because it has a hidden ellipses that Kemple’s group left out of the billboard. The full quote in the originating text reads: “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time.” Notice how the imposition of “the” changes the meaning from a specifically Abahamic God to a probably more Deistic God, or even god in forbidding lower-case.
 Can a government not be secular and avoid becoming actively and specifically religious? Wouldn’t it be secular if it were not religious, even if this was just an accident and not a stated fact of the Constitution, for example?
 Then why argue about it? If its not there. This seems to be a consistent problem with this group. They both argue against the Separation of Church and State and that the Separation of Church and State doesn’t exist anyways in the Constitution.
 (which, you don’t think even exists, so does it or doesn’t it? It can’t well be violated by the IRS if it’s not an actual violable constitutional principle, right?)