A Southern Baptist leader is portraying the separation of church and state as a “shadowy phrase.”
In his newsletter last week, Jerry Falwell defended Alabama’s chief justice, Roy Moore, for refusing to obey a federal court order to remove his Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building.
Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, warned that the nation was “racing headlong toward existence in a Godless public square,” led by “the lovers of secularism,” “the disciples of secularism” and “the purveyors of secularism,” who had a “sinister vision of America.”
Accusing Americans United for the Separation of Church and State of “religious genocide,” Falwell also criticized judicial activism, the U.S. Supreme Court and President Clinton.
Falwell’s well-known rant sounded like the broken record. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he accused certain Americans of being responsible for invoking God’s wrath. At the rally for Moore in Montgomery, he demonized the same basic groups.
What appeared to be new in his newsletter, however, was Falwell’s characterization of the separation of church and state as a secretive idea taken from a secondary document and given to a select group of people.
He wrote that the separation of church and state was a “shadowy phrase culled from a letter written by President Thomas Jefferson to a group of Baptists.”
Of course, the image of “shadowy” suggests something sinister. Shadowy matters are partially secret, practically manipulative and purposefully unethical. Putting the word “shadowy” before any idea immediately suggests that the idea is ethically questionable.
Add to shadowy the word “phrase,” reinforcing the idea of incompleteness or partialness.
The word “culled” means picked, chosen selectively. The idea of a letter suggests an informal, unofficial document. The reference to “a group of Baptists” hints that the notion was not for the larger American community.
For the sake of the record, what were these allegedly shadowy words?
Writing to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut, Jefferson said, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
Jefferson’s sentence was hardly a shadowy phrase! He clearly interpreted the religious liberty clause in the First Amendment to mean the separation of church and state.
Yet Falwell, in a few simple words woven together, has tried to discredit a time-honored and socially proven practice.
Falwell willfully ignores the vibrant role the concept of the separation of church and state played in the formation of our country and the power it holds in the strengthening and protecting our diverse culture today.
A state-sponsored church might well have stifled the American Baptist witness in its cradle. It could have opened the gates in America to religious warfare which stained so much of European history. Equally harmful, an American state-church would have increased the likelihood of significant persecution of non-Christians and decreased the diversity of our society.
The separation of the church and state is a defining reality of what it means to be America and a shining necessity for genuine religious freedom.
For Falwell to call the separation of church and state a “shadowy phrase” discloses his role as religious revisionist and political demagogue.
Robert Parham is BCE executive director.
Robert M. Parham (1953 – 2017) was the founder and executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics from 1991 to 2017. He served as executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, BCE’s website, from its launch in 2002 until 2017.