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John Tyler: Smacking Down Fools and Teabaggers, Too!

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Glen Urquhart, a teabagger running for congress in Delaware, made a big deal out of publicly declaring the phrase "separation of Church and State" originated with Adolf Hitler. Yes, that's insane, but there is a method to Urquhart's madness. He used that fallacy to edumacate his audience because he needed something that sounded credible so he could then promote this mendacious meme:

Next time your liberal friends talk
about the separation of church and state,
ask them why they are Nazis

Who knows if Hitler said it or not. One thing I do know, Hitler idolized Henry Ford; that's a fact. Hitler kept a life size portrait of Ford next to his desk, and Ford sent Hitler 50,000 Deutschmarks every year as a birthday gift. Hitler even awarded Ford one of the highest civilian honors the Reich could bestow on someone. Does that mean everyone who drives a Ford pickup is a Nazi?

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with American history will immediately cite Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington, or the Constitution to counter the idea that Hitler invented the phrase, much less the concept. However the exact phrase "separation of church and state" cannot be attributed to any of those sources. Never mind they are clearly valid sources for demonstrating the centrality of that concept in the foundation of the republic.

Teabaggers will point to this as "proof" in support of their idiocy. That argument is in the same vein as the teabagger/birther argument that a "Certificate of Live Birth" doesn't count as a Birth Certificate. Or the argument that "the oath of office wasn't properly administered so Obama really isn't president."

Fine. Let them argue with this. The use of the term "separation of church and state" in the specific context of the United States government's official policy and constitutional obligation was included in a letter written by President John Tyler on July 10, 1843 while he was president. Here's the relevant passage:

The United States has adventured upon a great and noble experiment, which is believed to have been hazarded in the absence of all previous precedent--that of total separation of Church and State. No religious establishment by law [emph. in the original] exists among us. The conscience is left free from all restraint and each is permitted to worship his Maker after his own judgment. The offices of the Government are open alike to all. No tithes are levied to support an established Hierarchy, nor is the fallible judgment of man set up as the sure and infallible creed of faith. The Mahommedan, if he will to come among us would have the privilege guaranteed to him by the Constitution to worship according to the Koran; and the East Indian might erect a shrine to Brahma if it so pleased him. Such is the spirit of toleration inculcated by our political institutions.... The Hebrew persecuted and down trodden in other regions takes up his abode among us with none to make him afraid.... and the Aegis of the government is over him to defend and protect him. Such is the great experiment which we have tried, and such are the happy fruits which have resulted from it; our system of free government would be imperfect without it.

The letter to Joseph Simpson of Baltimore, MD, was first published in 1903. It appears in Publications of The American Jewish Historical Society. The letter was Tyler's prompt response to Mr. Simpson's letter articulating specific concerns about the role to be played by none other than General Winfield Scott, then General in Chief of the US Army, at an upcoming missionary conference.

Tyler specifically, explicitly and personally stated the policy position of his administration in this regard by concluding his letter with this assurance:

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While I remain connected with the Government be assured, Sir, that so far as the Executive action is concerned, the guarantees of the Constitution in this great particular will know no diminution.

For the record, and for the teabaggers who have trouble with numbers: Hitler wasn't even a dirty thought in 1843.


  1. Phillips, N Taylor, Items relating to the history of the Jews of New York, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, 11 (1903): 149-161
  1. Reproduced in The William and Mary Quarterly, vol 13, No. 1, July 1904 facsimile available online
  1. Cited in Bernard Lewis, From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004): p 331.
  1. Quoted by Bernard Lewis in The Roots of Muslim Rage The Atlantic, September 1990, Volume 266, No. 3, pages 47 - 60. (quote appears at the end of article on p. 60)
  1. Quoted in Nicole Gue'tin, Religious ideology in American politics: a history (2009) p. 85
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For starters, I am not the Henry Porter who writes for the Observer in Britain. I'm a native New Yorker living in Maryland. I used to believe knowledge was power. Now I know knowledge translated into action is power.

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