Another Irrelevant Federer Column on the Founding Fathers

Another Irrelevant Federer Column on the Founding Fathers January 3, 2017

William Federer, a poor man’s David Barton, has another column for the Worldnetdaily, this time claiming that “separation of church, state’ doesn’t mean what atheists want it to mean.” As usual, it’s just a very long collection of quotes and factoids that have nothing to do with that claim.


Examples of the kind of “evidence” he presents:

Baptists had been particularly persecuted in colonial Virginia, as Francis L. Hawks wrote in “Ecclesiastical History” (1836): “No dissenters in Virginia experienced for a time harsher treatment than the Baptists. … They were beaten and imprisoned. … Cruelty taxed ingenuity to devise new modes of punishment and annoyance.”

So many Baptist ministers were harassed, and their church services disrupted, that James Madison introduced legislation in Virginia’s Legislature on Oct. 31, 1785, titled “A Bill for Punishing Disturbers of Religious Worship,” which passed in 1789…

John Leland, who considered running for Congress, wanted an amendment to the new United States Constitution which would protect religious liberty. Leland reportedly met with James Madison near Orange, Virginia. Upon Madison’s promise to introduce what would become the First Amendment, Leland agreed to persuade Baptists to support him.

John Leland wrote in “Rights of Conscience Inalienable,” 1791, that they wanted not just toleration, but equality: “Every man must give account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that he can best reconcile to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free.”

And what does this have to do with the claim that separation of church and state doesn’t mean what atheists want it to mean (a position he never bothers to define)? Nothing. Federer’s typical strategy, like Barton’s, is just to present a long list of quotes from anyone in the colonial era commenting that they believed in God as if that fact had anything at all to do with the proper interpretation of the First Amendment’s religion clauses. So he keeps on doing that. And it gets rather dishonest when he comes to Thomas Jefferson:

Jefferson viewed the “wall” as limiting the federal government from “inter-meddling” in church government, as explained in his letter to Samuel Miller, Jan. 23, 1808: “I consider the government of the United States as interdicted (prohibited) by the Constitution from inter-meddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. This results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment or free exercise of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the United States (10th Amendment). …”

Jefferson continued: “Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general (federal) government. … Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets.”

And here’s the problem. Samuel Miller had written to Jefferson asking why he had never issued non-binding, advisory declarations of thanksgiving or days of prayer, as his predecessors had. Federer doesn’t say that, of course, because that context changes things quite a bit. Jefferson believed that the First Amendment prevented him from issuing even generic, non-coercive suggestions regarding religion, which undercuts his thesis completely. Because secularists pretty much universally agree with him while Christian righters like Federer do not. He’s presented evidence against his own position.

And while he mentions Madison, who is more responsible for the First Amendment than anyone else, he doesn’t bother to discuss at all what Madison’s view on the meaning of separation of church and state was. He spelled it out in his Detached Memoranda. And coincidentally, he took positions in that document that are more radical than almost anyone takes today. For example, he argued that the military should not provide chaplains and that there should be strict limits on the amount of property a church could own, positions that none of the secularist groups take today.

He has learned well from Barton how to lie by omission, by plucking proof texts out of context, and by the clever use of ellipses to filter out material that contradicts his preferred narrative.

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