The writers of the Constitution knew the recent history of wars of religion and religious persecution in Europe. Many of the thinkers who influenced them associated political freedom very closely with freedom of religion, with the dismantling of state religion, and -- in some cases -- with the abandonment of religion entirely. "Man shall not be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest," said Jean Meslier, or Denis Diderot, or perhaps Voltaire, depending whom you ask. Voltaire's bust was, and still is, prominently displayed in Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. Jefferson and George Mason led the establishment of religious freedom, first in Virginia, and then in the new United States.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, leading off the Bill of Rights, begins: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This came before freedom of speech or anything else. It was considered essential to the survival of the nation. Jefferson, George Washington, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin and other leading revolutionaries leaned toward deism in their own beliefs, distrusting churches and holy texts, prayers and miracles, and believing essentially in a deity who had supposedly created everything and then gone on break. They were not atheists, but theists who distrusted all religions, even their own. And their tolerance extended to tolerance of atheism: "Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear," wrote Jefferson.
But that was personal, not political advice. Politically, Jefferson et alia aimed to instill tolerance of all religions while establishing state authority and support for none: "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions," Jefferson wrote, "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 and State."
In a 2005 BBC series, Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen and Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath described their first meeting with President Bush in June 2003. Shaath recalled: "President Bush said to all of us: 'I'm driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, "George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan." And I did, and then God would tell me, "George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq …" And I did. And now, again, I feel God's words coming to me, "Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East." And by God I'm gonna do it.'" Mazen recalled that Bush told him: "I have a moral and religious obligation. So I will get you a Palestinian state."
I have one more quotation for you:
"Elwood: They're not gonna catch us. We're on a mission from God."
Maybe our problem is that we've lost the wall of separation between news and entertainment, between statesmanship and Hollywood comedy. The corporate media now asks presidential candidates to name and explain their favorite Bible verses, and accuses candidates of not being sufficiently christian.
"Let's make clear what the facts are," said Barack Obama in one such debate. "I am a Christian, I have been sworn in with a Bible, I pledge allegiance and lead the pledge of allegiance sometimes in the United States Senate when I've presided."
President Bush has punched quite a few holes in the wall of separation. He has used agencies including the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Park Service, the Department of Defense (DOD), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Department of Education (DOE), the Department of Health and Human Services, and the office of the Surgeon General, to promote the establishment of a religion.
On January 20, 2001, at his first inauguration, at which he swore to defend the Constitution, President-to-be Bush announced plans to fund social services through religious institutions: "Church and charity, synagogue and mosque, lend our communities their humanity, and they will have an honored place in our plans and laws." President Bush immediately issued a proclamation establishing a "national day of prayer."
The first director of President Bush's newly established White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (FBCI), John DiIulio, reported that he was asked to leave because he opposed providing public dollars to agencies with behavioral codes and christian-only hiring policies. The FBCI quickly also became a mechanism for providing public dollars to churches that had supported the election campaign of presidential candidate George W. Bush.
"In the absence of new legislative authority, the President has aggressively advanced the Faith-Based Initiative through executive orders, rule changes, managerial realignment in federal agencies, and other innovative uses of the prerogatives of his office. Among those innovations is the creation of a high-profile special office in the White House, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, connected to mini-offices in ten government agencies, each with a carefully selected director and staff, empowered to articulate, advance and oversee coordinated efforts to win more financial support for faith-based social services. These ten agencies include: the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Labor, and Veterans Affairs, as well as the Agency for International Development and the Small Business Administration. A similar office has also been created within the Corporation for National and Community Service. In addition, the Initiative has been promoted in a myriad of other government offices overseeing programs ranging from homeownership and business development to energy conservation.
"With assistance from the White House Office, these federal agencies have proposed or finalized a host of new regulations that together mark a major shift in the constitutional separation of church and state. Examples of these regulatory changes include: