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Gazette Premium Content OUR VIEW: Buck trashes wall of separation (vote here)

Wayne Laugesen Updated: October 28, 2010 at 12:00 am

Democrats, unable to hold their own in a campaign season centered on economics, have tried to marginalize their opponents as “extreme.” Colorado Republican senatorial candidate Ken Buck is among their easiest targets. If Buck wins, it will be in spite of his brilliant mind and freedom-loving mouth.

Buck, an Ivy League intellectual who hasn’t mastered the art of speaking only in canned campaign sound bites, has provided a hostile press and his Democratic opponent with an abundance of phrases that are easy to use out of context in our gotcha, sound-bite world. Buck questions the wisdom of hemorrhaging money to slow global warming, and he dares question whether humans are causing the latest warming trend in a world that has forever warmed and cooled, and his thoughtful position scandalizes the mainstream press.

Buck used a bad comparison to explain that sexual orientation involves behavior and genetic predisposition, and his idea gave scandal to a media that merely reacts spasmodically with little interest in respectful dialogue. Yet it seems logical that alcoholism and sexual orientation have common traits. Each is likely connected directly to a person’s genetics, and each involves choice. An alcoholic may choose to never consume alcohol. Likewise, a heterosexual may choose to never get intimate with a person of the opposite sex. But much of modern society, aided by a complicit media establishment, doesn’t discuss complexities. Instead, it settles on acceptable ideas and expressions — sometimes referred to as the “politically correct” agenda — and it reacts in revulsion to anything that crosses the line. Don’t think and discuss. Just react and condemn, crushing civil discourse under a mountain of politically convenient sound bites.

The latest episode of Buck stepping outside the boundaries of establishment-approved ideology involves the sudden emergence of comments he made a year ago about the so-called “wall of separation” between religion and government.

“I disagree strongly with the concept of separation of church and state,” Buck said. “It is not written into the Constitution.”

The mainstream media and otherwise-minded bloggers pounced, because the concept of “separation of church and state” has gained the status of baseball, apple pie and human-caused global warming.

“Why Does Ken Buck Hate America?” screamed a headline on TheModerateVoice.com

A dismayed Mike Littwin wrote in the Denver Post that Buck should know better because he went to law school.

(Vote in poll to the right in red type. Must vote to see results. Thanks!)

Students of history and law know the phrase “wall of separation between Church & State” was first used in a letter President Thomas Jefferson sent to a committee of the Danbury Baptist Association on Jan. 1, 1802, thanking them for their support. Perhaps nobody understands the letter more than James Hutson, the Library of Congress curator who oversaw an exhibit of the letter and commissioned FBI forensic scientists to uncover sentences that Jefferson had crossed out in an original draft. Hutson also studied correspondence between Jefferson and his closest advisers, as Jefferson labored over the writing. (Read Hutson's analysis ; read Jefferson's draft and recovered text ; read Jefferson's final letter to Danbury Baptists)

The letter, Hutson concludes, “was never conceived by Jefferson to be a statement of fundamental principles; it was meant to be a political manifesto, nothing more.”

As an anti-Federalist, Jefferson was an indefatigable defender of religious liberty and wanted to protect against government establishment of one creed as official truth. Federalists had used his staunch opposition to a state-established church to characterize him as an atheist, and the letter to Danbury Baptists was a political volley to reassure Christians of his respect for their religious liberties. The wall he spoke of would prevent government from dictating that they profess other religious beliefs, as the king of England had done.

Jefferson’s wall has been misinterpreted by courts and public opinion to sanitize government of religion, particularly Christian expression.

Hutson points out that former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, in 1962, lamented that jurisprudence was hindered "by the uncritical invocation of metaphors like the 'wall of separation,' a phrase nowhere to be found in the Constitution." Former Chief Justice William Rehnquist complained that "unfortunately the Establishment Clause has been expressly freighted with Jefferson's misleading metaphor for nearly 40 years."

The Freedom from Religion Foundation, the American Humanist Association and a long list of other activist organizations that push a wall-of-separation agenda sued in a failed effort to keep prayer and references to God out of President Barack Obama’s inauguration. Advocates of separation want “IN GOD WE TRUST” removed from currency, and they constantly battle against other religious expressions in government. Some have suggested preachers shouldn’t run for public office.

Is this what Jefferson had in mind? It could not be. Two days after writing the Danbury letter, he attended a Baptist church service — in the House of Representatives. He continued attending Baptist church services in the House regularly throughout his two terms in office.

It was, curator Hutson wrote, “his way of offering symbolic support for religious faith and for its beneficent role in republican government.”

Jefferson didn’t want to protect the state from the church, he wanted to prevent the state from imposing a religion by law. His letter had to do with freedom to practice religion, any religion, not where religion may be practiced.

First Amendment law is full of complexities. In more enlightened times, a candidate who questioned the concept of “separation” would inspire civilized and rational discussion. Today, to question the concept gives scandal by violating the precepts of popular, pre-approved groupthink. We should all know better. Good discussions lead to better decisions; reactionary dogma only make piles that smell like those one finds in a cow shed.

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