Rush Limbaugh's Historical Ignorance
Ed Brayton printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Wed Oct 03, 2007 at 06:07:17 PM EST
This ridiculous diatribe by Limbaugh about Jefferson and the separation of church and state really has to be read to be believed. While criticizing an unnamed teacher (who I frankly doubt exists) for her "total hack, liberal political bias", he spews absolute nonsense about the subject. Like this:
This has been taken so out of context, and has been amplified far beyond what Jefferson ever intended.  For example, Thomas Jefferson -- I don't know how many of you people were taught this, thus I don't know how many of you remember it.  Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence -- and, of course, it speaks of God repeatedly.  It speaks of unalienable rights which are endowed by our Creator.  Now, the Declaration of Independence is our founding document.  So if Thomas Jefferson was hostile to religion, the basis of which is God, it's hard to explain his writings in such an important document.

It's only difficult for simpleminded dolts. Those who have actually read Jefferson's voluminous writings on the subject of God and religion have no problem understanding it at all. Limbaugh only makes it a problem by misstating the premise. No one claims that Jefferson was "hostile to religion." Thus, the fact that he believed in God does not conflict with any actual claim made on the subject. Limbaugh is beating up a straw man.

It's quite a common straw man, of course. Like many other Christian nation apologists, he wants to equate support for separation of church and state with hostility toward religion, which is absolutely false. As I've pointed out many times, some of the staunchest defenders of church/state separation were Baptist ministers like John Leland and Isaac Backus. That Jefferson believed in God has nothing at all to do with the kind of separation of church and state he advocated.

When this all started in 1947, the Supreme Court seized on a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote. "The wall of separation between church and state" was taken out of context in a letter that Jefferson wrote to the Danbury, Connecticut, Baptist community in which he explained why he didn't call for national days of fasting and Thanksgiving, as George Washington and John Adams had as president.  But two days later he went to church!  He attended church services in the House of Representatives.  He continued as a regular attendant throughout his presidency.

One false claim and one red herring; not bad for half a paragraph, even by Limbaugh's standards. Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists doesn't even mention calls for national days of thanksgiving, not by Jefferson or by Washington and Adams, nor did the letter the Danbury congregation wrote to Jefferson mention such proclamations. Has Limbaugh ever actually read the letter? Highly doubtful. Is there anything more ridiculous than someone presuming to lecture someone else about the contents of a document they've never read?

As for the second claim, it is an irrelevant half-truth that has been debunked many times. What Jefferson attended at the hall where the House met was far more accurately called a big party than a church service. It featured many different speakers at different times, including preachers, but it was really a big social gathering, not a church service. Jefferson, who complained of the lack of social life in the capitol at the time, was an occasional attendee.

I want to finish my thought on this separation of church and state business here, folks, because this is important.  I don't care if you have some wacko teacher teaching your kid wrongly about it, it's still something that everybody has just come to accept, and it doesn't exist.  There's no such thing.  You can go to the Constitution, go to First Amendment, and freedom of religion is the first thing that's mentioned.  And it just says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."  That seals us against the fear of a state church.  That's it.  "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."  Now, the key here is coercion, which I will get to in a moment.  But in that First Amendment, there's no separation clause there.

Same old stupid argument - if that exact phrase isn't there, it doesn't exist. "The words 'separation of powers' is found nowhere in the Constitution. There's no such thing." Brilliant.

This phrase, separation of church and state, comes from Thomas Jefferson's letter.  He wrote it on January 1st, 1802, to the Danbury Baptist Association.  He used the phrase, "a wall of separation between church and state" to describe what the First Amendment had accomplished so that these Baptists didn't need to fear state governments' declarations of days of prayer and fasting, as abridging their religious rights.  They didn't have to fear it because nothing could be done to them.  The First Amendment protects religious expression even by individuals in government, and even in public halls and government buildings.  Jefferson solidified this by concluding his letter with a reference to the common father and creator of man.

There's no way Limbaugh has actually read Jefferson's letter (see the full text here). It had nothing - absolutely nothing - to do with declarations of prayer and fasting, not at the Federal or state level. Nor did the letter that he was answering have anything to do with such declarations (see that letter here).

They wrote to Jefferson to congratulate him on winning the presidency and to express their hope that his separationist views would spread to the state level. They knew that he had no authority over the official Congregationalist establishment in Connecticut, but they said that they hoped that "the sentiments of our beloved President", particularly in regard to religious freedom, "will shine & prevail through all these States and all the world till Hierarchy and Tyranny be destroyed from the Earth."

There isn't a word in either letter about government proclamations of prayer and fasting at either the state or Federal level. The complaint that the Danbury Baptists had was not about such proclamations but about a Connecticut state law that taxed citizens for the support of religion. The Danbury Baptists had started a petition in their state to get that law changed. It had nothing to do with religious proclamations at all.

Now, this letter ended up being seized on in 1947 by the Supreme Court, in a case called Emerson vs. Board of Education.  The Supreme Court in '47 asserted that separation of church and state is mandated by the Constitution.  That was a complete misstatement of Jefferson's record, to seize a single letter and to ignore the rest of his record and to take that whole phrase, a wall of separation, out of the context of the letter that Jefferson wrote.

Yet another false claim. First of all, it's Everson, not Emerson. And the Supreme Court did not acknowledge Jefferson's letter as evidence of the intent of the first amendment's religion clauses in 1947, it did so first in 1879 in Reynolds v US. The Court cited Jefferson's letter and said:

Coming as this does from an acknowledged leader of the advocates of the measure, it may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the amendment thus secured.

And of course, Limbaugh isn't really concerned about the context of the letter because, as I demonstrated above, he's almost certainly never read it and is completely fabricating a fake context in his arguments. Which leads to the next red herring:

Now, as an aside, ladies and gentlemen, Thomas Jefferson was not at the constitutional convention.  He was representing our country in France.  He was investigating Bordeaux.  He didn't vote on the Constitution.

True, but irrelevant. We could just as easily quote the many times that Madison used virtually the same phrase to describe the first amendment religion clauses. Madison, of course, was the primary force behind the writing of the Bill of Rights and the most adamant advocate of separation.

He was a deist, not an atheist.  In other words, he believed in a supreme being, but not a supreme being who intercedes simply because someone prays and asks him to.  But without getting into all that, the point is that Jefferson was not hostile to religion, his record is not one of banishing it from the public square, at all.

Repeating the same red herring. And he's wrong, Jefferson was not a deist either. But his personal religious beliefs have nothing to do with the meaning of the first amendment. Absolutely nothing.

So this is something that's been taken totally out of context, purposefully by liberals, teachers, and so forth, who have a great fear of religion.

Uh huh. Those anonymous liberals could scarcely do a more thorough job of distorting the issue than you have, Rush. You're talking out your ass. You either haven't read those letters at all, in which case you have no business talking about them at all, or you're flat out lying. Take your pick.

They claim to adhere to an original intent doctrine of jurisprudence, but a complete examination of original intent will only reveal historical and increasingly relevant information that will frustrate them.  

Taken from the documents of the Constitutional conventions, God was not in the forefront of the discussions pertaining to forming a new government, other than as a matter of discourse or sidenote.

The diversity of faith among newcomers to American shores was often a point of contention, (Maryland being set up as a "Catholic" colony, often at war with Massachusetts Bay "Pilgrims", and this combativeness was viewed as a disruption, a negative, not something to elevate or encourage.  Put in it's proper place, religion was neutralized (in the eyes of government), while God was given His due respect.

by lilorphant on Thu Oct 04, 2007 at 09:30:34 AM EST

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