Legislating religion

When Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Connecticut Baptist Convention in Danbury in 1802, he championed the “wall of separation” which the new republic's Constitution had erected between government and religion.

The wall has been under attack off and on ever since, but rarely more percussively or with greater connivance than in the years since 1954 when Congress stuck “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance. In the hyper anti-communism of the era, that was supposed to show “godless communism” a thing or two.

Christians and the law

Christians who would have government do their work for them continue with cussed persistence trying to squeeze their proselytizing through that little crack.

So South Carolina is on its way to issuing optional automobile license plates that declare “I Believe,” with illustrations of a cross and a stained glass window.

Legislation authorizing the plates was part of a package of Christian enthusiasm that gripped the state legislature this election year. The lawmakers also approved posting the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments in public buildings and immunized preachers from any legal comeback for preaching hortative and vividly sectarian prayers at government-sponsored events.

All of these doings have been held unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, but the court has been twisted rightward by President Bush, and state and local legislators are taking a new run at it.

In Texas, the state Board of Education is once again embroiled in an anti-evolution push, pressed to require that public-school science classes take a “strengths and weakness” approach to biology instruction. S-and-W is the latest dodgy version of “creationism,” which became “creation science,” which became “intelligent design.”

The approach is billed as even-handed, but it is just one more rhetorical beard to disguise bootlegged bible teaching.

South Carolina's lieutenant governor, Andre Bauer, a big champion of the I Believe plates, says he's just a fan of free speech. Uh-huh. Try petitioning for a “God Sucks” license plate.

Nor is the strengths-and-weaknesses crowd clamoring for Texas to take the same approach to teaching the theory of gravity or atomic theory. Yes, the apple never fails to bonk Isaac Newton and if you set off an atomic bomb it is surely going to make one hellacious noise.

Both phenomena, in science, are nonetheless still theories in the same way evolution is.

What Jefferson wrote

The Founding Fathers were dead serious about this stuff. The 1779 Virginia statute on religious freedom, which Jefferson wrote with James Madison, in effect was a detailed, before-the-fact explication of the First Amendment's condensed “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof?”

When Jefferson wrote to the Connecticut Baptists, it was to reassure them that religion would be safe from government under the First Amendment. It is difficult to imagine now, but in the colonies and the new nation, Baptists were the most ardent advocates of church-state separation.

Maybe some day the folks who want to put government's shoulder to religion's wheel will finally catch on that religion flourishes in this country, as it does these days in no other Western nation, not in defiance of our church-state separation but thanks to it.

Some day but obviously no day soon. Of course, that's just a theory.