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Sunday, December 21, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

The Ombudsman Column

Is That Church-State Wall Just a Metaphor?

When I was in elementary school back in the 1940s during World War II, we used to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day. We faced the classroom flag and said: "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." Later, when I was in college, it changed. An act of Congress in 1954 mandated that the words "under God" be inserted after "one nation." Whenever the occasion arises to recite the pledge, I still, instinctively, start to say the old pledge, the way I learned it as a youngster, and it is usually the surrounding voices that remind me it is different now.

The Pledge of Allegiance, of course, is not the only part of our public record to have evolved with respect to the place of God and religion in American life and law, and arguments over such issues are truly as old as the republic.

I mention my recollection of this change, however, because it always crosses my mind, involuntarily, whenever I hear arguments over the separation of church and state. So it came to mind as I looked over e-mail from viewers this week who were critical of a one-hour documentary film titled "Wall of Separation" that began airing last week on some PBS stations and that, according to a PBS Pressroom news release, "probes the origins and history of separation of church and state in America."

Some of the letters are posted at the bottom of this column.

Several of the critical e-mails were from people who had not actually seen the film, produced by Boulevard Pictures. Some may have been reacting to an article that appeared on the Web site of "Americans United for Separation of Church and State" on June 8 written by Barry W. Lynn, who is executive director of Americans United. A clip from an interview with Lynn is included in the film. Lynn writes that he, too, had not yet seen the film but is critical of its premise and of the background and views of Executive Producer Jack Hafer and Director/Writer Brian Godawa. Lynn writes that the project "smacks of covert Religious Right propaganda, not a forthright contribution to the national dialogue."

This May Surprise You

The PBS Pressroom description of the film is actually the same as that on the Boulevard Pictures Web site. It says: "The 'wall of separation' is a metaphor deeply embedded in the American consciousness. Most Americans assume that the First Amendment prevents the mixing of politics and religion. The freedom of religion clauses protect individuals from the entanglement of religion with government and secure the right to freely exercise religious faith. America is a religiously pluralistic culture guided by a secular government.

"But what would surprise most Americans," the press release goes on to say, "is the discovery that this is not what the Founding Fathers intended when they established the nation and wrote the Constitution and Bill of Rights. In fact, they had a radically different interpretation of the role of religion in state and federal governments. Just what was their view? Why was it different? Where did the 'wall of separation' metaphor come from? And how did its meaning evolve into what we consider it today?

"'Wall of Separation' explores both sides of the issue," the film description continues, "by telling the story of the 'wall' metaphor, from its humble beginnings in a letter by Thomas Jefferson to a Baptist church through important Supreme Court cases like Everson vs. Board of Education and the most recent decisions about Ten Commandment displays."

Well, I would agree that it "would surprise most Americans" that the Founding Fathers intended something quite different when they "wrote the Constitution and Bill of Rights." That's what makes this program controversial, but also interesting because debate over matters of church and state are, indeed, as old as the republic and they clearly are not yet over.

Journalists, of course, hold the First Amendment close to their collective heart. In fact, they cling to it as protection against government intrusions against a free press. And most of the discourse about the First Amendment that we have been hearing these days is about the extent to which it does or doesn't mean certain privileges and protections for journalists. It clearly does not offer complete protection in the view of higher courts.

In Case You Forgot

Just as a reminder, the Bill of Rights, which took effect on Dec. 15, 1791, contains the first 10 amendments to the Constitution and the first of those amendments went to the heart of the new American democracy and the freedoms central to it, freedoms — of speech, press, religion, assembly and petition.

Here's what it says: "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."

As far as I can tell from only early, fragmentary PBS data, the film, although released early this month, has only been shown on a few stations and did not attract many viewers. According to John Wilson, a senior vice president and chief TV programming executive at PBS, the film was selected for distribution through "PBS Plus," which he described as a service that provides stations with programs they may schedule locally to supplement the PBS primetime national and children's schedule. Asked who reviews these films, he said PBS Plus has a staff but that submissions "come through the same gate as all PBS submissions and appropriate staff are involved in program evaluation." These films carry the PBS logo and among the selection criteria, he said, are programs that are likely to be carried by about half of the 350-affiliated stations and that "reflect the many views of our diverse American society" and serve "our mandate to present a diversity of viewpoints on issues of public importance."

Having watched the film twice, and gone over the transcript, I think that Wilson presents a reasonable explanation. My own view is that the film, while including some differing views, does indeed leave one with a sense of advocacy and pursuit of a point of view — which challenges not only Thomas Jefferson's view of a "wall of separation" but a string of Supreme Court decisions — and which, after a little Web surfing, is not surprising.

Hafer, in an interview discussing another of his films four years ago, said, "We have an obligation as Christians to shape culture — and the arts and entertainment arena is the greatest shaper of values today. We must talk about the faith, spread the faith, if you will." Reviewing an earlier book by Godawa, Publisher's Weekly describes him as "an award-winning Christian Hollywood writer" and says "one of his main arguments is that Christians should engage the world of popular culture in order to reform it. He reveals a clearly defined, even narrow, view of Christianity by asserting the 'correct' way one should live or interpret the Bible."

The interviews in the film, in terms of time on screen and numbers, seemed to me to tilt clearly in favor of those who see a danger in the "wall of separation" metaphor used by Jefferson, such as Daniel Dreisbach, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and the author of a book on the subject. He says, for example, "It takes the First Amendment, which is a restriction on government, and transforms (it) into now being a restriction on people of faith, communities of faith, faith-based ideas. And that far exceeds the mandate of the First Amendment." John Eastman, dean of the Chapman University School of Law in Orange, Calif., and a former law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, explains why the stakes are so high "in getting this notion of inalienable rights given to us by a Creator, not by government."

Starring . . .

But the star of this film who carries the message that I, as a viewer, got, and assume the producers clearly want carried, is the unseen narrator who, time and again, conveys the theme of this film — that God is the necessary foundation of society's law and government.

"The United States is a society based on the rule of law. And our Founding Fathers believed that if they did not base their laws on a higher authority, then whoever was in power would determine what the law said. They called this 'tyranny'," the narrator says, adding that, "Their higher authority was the Law of God — the Ten Commandments." He says at another point: "But the question remains: Without a transcendent religious authority, what is the ultimate standard for legal adjudication?" Then he states: "Some believe the Supreme Court is in fact the final authority in such disputes . . . But critics claim that the Justices have replaced the religious Supreme Being, with the secular Supreme Court, as the final authority."

Despite what seemed to me as this heavy-handed hammering away by the narrator in what is supposed to be — and is, to a fair degree — a discussion of an issue that has vexed the nation since the beginning, the film does provide a useful, and powerful, reminder of how God, Christianity, the Creator, the Bible, the Ten Commandments and the appeal to the higher authority figured so prominently in the language of this country's founding and in the words of its leaders. It reminds us that God is carved into countless national monuments and printed on our legal tender, and has been an ascending force in American politics for several years now.

When I asked Wilson whether he viewed this as a point-of-view film, he said, "Many public affairs programs can be labeled "pov" — we look to ensure balance on controversial issues over the schedule as a whole. And the film presents views that challenge the point of view of the filmmaker. We believe this is an appropriate addition to the body of work PBS has presented on constitutional issues."

My sense is that people can take from this film whatever they wish. It can be a useful reminder of the context of our founding documents and a way of looking at that context — and at the intent of the framers of the First Amendment as assessed in the dominant view of this film — that challenges the more common view, as the press release put it, that "most Americans assume that the First Amendment prevents the mixing of politics and religion." Or it can be viewed as sophisticated propaganda, as some critics already have; part of a campaign to further the role of religion in American life, law and politics and dilute the words of the late, former Justice Hugo Black, who is quoted in the film and who said in 1947, referring to Jefferson's "wall of separation between church and state," that it "must be kept high and impregnable."

Here Are Some Letters:

Last night I watched "Wall of Separation." I was surprised and disturbed to realize that I was watching religious propaganda on PBS. I recognize that the makers of many, if not most, documentaries (including those aired on PBS) have an ax to grind, and that they choose which facts to present and which interview snippets to include accordingly. I also realize that a diversity of viewpoints is desirable. However, I do not feel that a program advocating a Christianization of the US federal government is appropriate material for PBS. I am very disappointed.

B. Hodges, Falmouth, MA



I was shocked and disappointed with the PBS presentation of "Wall of Separation." It was not just the pervasive leaps of logic that troubled me as I watched, nor was it the assertions that the narrators "know better" than the Supreme Court what our founding fathers intended. As problematic as these issues were to me, of greater concern was that PBS accepted this program for broadcast in the first place. At the very least I would have expected a disclaimer that "Wall of Separation" was produced by a company that represents a fundamentalist Christian perspective. Even better, I wish that PBS had sought a more balanced program that would have presented the nuances and complexities of the church/state separation debate. I have come to expect that kind of scholarly integrity from PBS.

Dianne Hoff, Bangor, ME



I am very disappointed in PBS's recent decision to air the so-called documentary, Wall of Separation, which is clearly an attempt from the Religious Right to push an agenda of theocracy in the U.S. The Religious Right is adept at masquerading as "fair and balanced" — and it portrays the Brian Godawa program as such — and it's hard to believe that the leaders of an intelligent media resource like PBS would fall for their tricks.

Michelle Kenoyer, Riverview, FL


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