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GOD AND COUNTRY - 1.27.04
In Focus  :  God in America  :  Transcript
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Flashpoints USA with Bryant Gumbel and Gwen Ifill is an innovative public affairs series from PBS that brings together both compelling examinations of critical issues and a dynamic pairing of two of the most respected names in journalism.


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God in America Transcript
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God in America Religion and the Law The Politics of God


Bryant Gumbel leads a discussion on the founding fathers, religion and government with Jon Butler from Yale Univeristy and Joseph Loconte of The Heritage Foundation.

Bryant Gumbel:
According to our PBS Flashpoints USA poll conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs, 84 percent of Americans believe the phrase "under God" belongs in the Pledge. But the framers of the Constitution were very specific in their commitment to freedom of religion and freedom from religion. Yet, God seems to be everywhere. So, is there a constitutional distinction? We've put that question to Jon Butler, an historian from Yale, and Joseph Loconte of The Heritage Foundation. Gentlemen, good evening.
Thank you for being with. In this country, we talk of freedom of religion and freedom from religion. Yet, God does seem to be everywhere. Is that historically what the framers had in mind?

Butler:
The framers believed that religion was important in moderate American society in the eighteenth century. They also were very concerned about government interference in religion because of the long and dismal history of colonial establishments and the many problems that derived there from.

Gumbel:
In plain English, that means they were - they came from religious reformers, and that's what brought them here?

Butler:
In plain English, it means that they thought religion was important, but they didn't think that government should be involved in propagating religion.

Gumbel:
Did they - why did they place such a high priority on it?

Loconte:
Well, I put the emphasis on freedom for religion. I think the universal consensus - the near universal consensus of the founders was that you could not really sustain freedom without citizens of virtue, and you couldn't really get citizens of virtue across a vast republic without religion. So, the basic American syllogism, or the - kind of the internal triangle of American politics was, "Freedom requires virtue, virtue requires faith, and faith requires freedom." So, they wanted a - a faith or a religious system - institutions and belief that was not like the European model, where Jon and I, I think, agree; not the church-driven model, the state-driven model. They wanted religion that was genuinely free, voluntary, uncoerced.

Gumbel:
How revolutionary a concept was that?

Loconte:
That was utterly revolutionary. The first time it ever happened in Western civilization, that you would actually disestablish, disassociate - disassociate state and church. But the - the intent was to promote religious liberty and freedom of conscience, not to somehow sanitize the state from religious belief and religious institutions.

Gumbel:
So, is that to say that they would not have wanted us to have these "under God," "In God We Trust" - All these other references?

Butler:
It's very interesting to note that they didn't. In fact, the Constitution prohibits religious oaths and, in fact, they didn't have an oath of allegiance that had "under God in its language."

Gumbel:
So, is that to say you think they would've opposed it today?

Butler:
It's not clear to me whether they would've opposed it or not. It depends upon how seriously you take the words "under God" in the Oath of Allegiance, or in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Gumbel:
It sounds like you don't take them very seriously.

Butler:
It's not a matter of whether I take them seriously. It's a matter of what would be historically accurate in thinking about the way this would be handled in the eighteenth century. The simple truth is we don't know, because in the eighteenth century and in the early nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century, we didn't have the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. We only had those words since the 1950s.

Gumbel:
How do you think the framers would've viewed all these religious references?

Loconte:
Well, I think they would've endorsed much of it because, unlike in the French model - the French revolution, which was not only anti-king - anti monarchy - but thoroughly anti-religious. So, the slogan with the French revolutionaries was, "We'll strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest." That's kind of the French version of the faith-based initiative - right?
In the American experiment, faith and freedom were joined at the hip; and the founders really could not conceive of a republic not somehow connected deeply to religious institutions and religious beliefs.

Gumbel:
Why? Were they particularly religious men?

Loconte:
Well, some of them were. Some of them weren't. But even Thomas Jefferson, the - the Enlightenment icon who gave us, of course, the "wall of separation" metaphor - even Jefferson, on his way to church one morning there on Capitol Hill near where I live - Jefferson said to one bystander - he said, "No nation has ever yet existed or been governed without religion, nor can be. And as the chief magistrate of the land, I owe it the" - "the sanction of my public example."

Gumbel:
So, what was their intention? Was it to keep God out of government? Government out of religion? Or, both? Was there a priority?

Butler:
Well, I would make the argument that in the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century, the intent was to keep government out of religion - in part, because Madison; Jefferson; even Franklin; Washington, for example, believed that when government got involved in religion in a direct fashion by funding religious organizations - as in Virginia, for example, Patrick Henry proposed that there be a general establishment for Christian groups. Washington at first favored that and then came to the conclusion that that was a very bad idea, because the groups would fall out over government moneys. And that is why Virginia ended up having no establishment at all.

Gumbel:
What about - what about the alternative to that, keeping religion out of government?

Loconte:
Keeping religion out of government. Well, I think if you look at the clauses in the First Amendment, the "free exercise" clause and the establishment clause, I think what we've forgotten is that in the minds of the founders, those two clauses really formed a single provision with a single, overriding purpose. And the purpose was to protect religious liberty and freedom of conscience. So, they - they expected and hoped that religious belief and religious institutions would animate civic and political life, that they would inform the political institutions. That's why de Tocqueville, the great French observer of the American scene -- by the 1830s, he says that religion is the first of America's political institutions. Now, why would he say that if religious belief and religious institutions weren't having a tremendous effect on civic and political life?

Butler:
I'd like to add one point, and that is that the founders also were deeply concerned about coercion. Butler: And they knew of the - the history of coercion in the colonial period. When Anglican author- --

Gumbel:
Coercion on the part of organized church?

Butler:
Coercion on the part of the state to coerce religious belief, as when Church of England authorities, sheriffs in Virginia whipped Baptist ministers because they were unlicensed preachers and, therefore, insulting the authority of the state. They were deeply concerned not to have government coerce religion; not to have government be active in religion in a spiritual, liturgical, churchly fashion.

Gumbel:
We've talked about the faith-based initiative a couple of times already, so let's go ahead and get to it. Do you view the relationship of god and government today - has the Bush administration blurred the lines of distinction, to your mind?

Butler:
My own view is - as a historian is that I think, in fact, they are blurring those distinctions. And we'll start with the phrase "faith-based." We really should say "religious initiatives." We really - why say "faith-based initiatives"? It's a euphemism for simply saying "religious initiatives." And the problem is not that government shouldn't protect religion. The question is, is it accurate to think that the founding fathers would have permitted federal funds to finance programs for drug abuse, for example, that require religious conversion? It's a wonderful thing to do on a voluntary basis, and we have many problems in our society with - with drug addiction. But should government support that if it involves religious conversion as part of the program? I think that most of the founding fathers would have said "no."

Gumbel:
Yet, you look at the same program and see nothing wrong with it. It doesn't bother you?

Loconte:
Well, there're some cautions, of course, in how you go about funding explicitly religious, evangelistic organizations. But if the - if the thrust of the intent of the founders was to protect religious liberty and freedom of conscience - this is where I agree with Jon - to avoid the coercive aspect of government interacting with faith, well, then, the President's faith-based initiative, it seems to me, is perfectly consistent with the basic principle; because the way that government is trying to fund these organizations is gonna be indirectly through, say, vouchers or tax credits. And when direct money is involved, it's not going to fund religious activities - not going to fund explicitly religious activities. There's gonna be a separation made between the secular aspects of a program and the religious aspects of a program, if they're taking direct government funds. And that seems perfectly consistent with the principle of the First Amendment.

Gumbel:
That sound realistic or idealistic to you?

Butler:
It does not sound realistic to me, and let me give you an example of why there are problems. Many of the groups that would like to do this also insist that only their own members can work for them, only their own members can - can shape these initiatives and these organizations. And that means that the government is going to be in the position of funding groups that deny employment to men and women because they are Jews, because they are Muslims, because they are Baptists, because they are Episcopalians. "Instead, they actually should be Presbyterians, because this is a Presbyterian program." I think that the founding fathers would have been upset by that kind of program.

Gumbel:
Gentlemen, let's consider the years before the current administration. How much, if at all, has the principle of church-state separation been impacted over the years by shifting political views?

Loconte:
Well, let's just review a few of the presidential administrations. I mean hardly an administration more religious in its endorsement of - of religious belief, religious institutions, belief in God than Abraham Lincoln. The Gettysburg Address, of course, "a nation under God" having a new birth of liberty - his speeches infused with religious language. You go to Teddy Roosevelt and the turn of the century and the Social Gospel Movement really influencing, I think, his administration. And so Roosevelt says he - that he could not imagine modern industry in the hands of modern paganism, that it would be a nightmare beyond imagining. But in the hands of Christian charity, that would be a dream worth dreaming. And then you jump to people like Jon Kennedy, who - who a- -- who assures the nation that his Catholic faith will in no way influence, of course, his - his politics. So, it's been a mixed bag, of course, with various administrations over the years.

Gumbel:
We give Lincoln a pass because the times were - were so unusual. But in the case of the other instances where shifting political views may have challenged the - the principle, was there much of an uproar?

Butler:
There was an uproar in 1800, when Thomas Jefferson ran for president and was described as the "red atheist" for his red hair and his apparent atheism. He actually was a deist. We've had problems in American politics with anti-Catholicism, local legislation, state legislation passed against the Roman Catholic Church; local legislation passed against Jews in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century; local ordinances passed to corral African-American preachers in New York City and in the suburbs in the 1920s and '30s. And we've had an ugly history at different points in the interaction between government and religion. So, the relationship has always been political, and it's always been difficult.

Gumbel:So, the questions today - are they any more prevalent, or are they any more divisive than they have ever been in our history? Loconte:
I think they're more divisive, because we're obviously more religiously diverse than we ever have been, with immigration and all sorts of reasons - a much more diverse nation. We also have government doing more now than it ever was doing in the eighteenth-century farmer's republic that the founders were living in. When the federal government did very little, so it didn't touch private life and civic life in so many ways in the way it does now. So, the more times you've got the federal government interacting with private and civic life, these religious questions just come to the fore.

Gumbel:
So, it's not our imagination that we're talking about this, it seems, increasingly.

Loconte:
It's not our imagination. It's a historical question that's been with us for 250 years.

Gumbel:
Can it be said that, as a nation, there is momentum going in any particular direction where these principles are concerned?

Butler:
Historically, I would be cautious about that. It might appear as though there's a greater impetus for such things as religious initiatives or faith-based initiatives, but oftentimes the - the - the path recedes as certain realities that come into play. And so one might have thought that - that America would never get over its anti-Catholicism, its anti-Semitism enacted into legislation. And, yet, we have in many regards.

Loconte:
And it seems to me when so much of the rest of the world is struggling with this question of how do you manage your religious diversity - your ethnic and religious diversity and maintain freedom and social peace, America is the great model for the rest of the world. I think we're trending in a - in a fairly positive direction in the sense that a growing recognition at the highest levels - not only the Bush administration, but really at the highest levels of government and culture - that there's something distinctively important about religious belief, religious conviction to sustaining freedom. I think the American model has a tremendous amount to offer the rest of the world.

Gumbel:
So, bottom line, quick out - out question: the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance - would the framers have agreed with the Ninth Circuit Court that it doesn't belong?

Loconte:
Jon?

Butler:
The principal framers, in my opinion, would have. That is, the big five, the big six and the big seven.

Gumbel:
They'd have said, "Out with it."

Butler:
And the - many of the others who signed the - who signed the Declaration of Independence or, in fact, were very active in the ratification of the Constitution would, in fact, have said, "No, we shouldn't have this."

Loconte:
They would have totally disagreed with the Ninth Circuit, because they agreed that it was important for government officials and public institutions to acknowledge the deity. That was a good brake on tyranny and chaos.

Gumbel:
Joseph Loconte, Jon Butler - gentlemen, both. Thank you so very much.

Butler and Loconte:
Thanks.





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