Last week was the annual National Prayer Breakfast and Rep. Steve Scalise, the Congressman who was shot several times last year while practicing for a House baseball game, was one of the speakers. And some of the things he said about separation of church and state reached a level of stupidity rarely seen, even in Washington, DC.
“This is a nation that was not founded in agnostic views. This was a nation founded with a deep belief in God. Our founding fathers talked about it when they were preparing to draft the Constitution. In fact, Thomas Jefferson was the author of the Constitution. If you go to the Jefferson memorial right now, go read this inscription from Thomas Jefferson: ‘God who gave us life, gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?’ You can’t separate church from state,” Scalise said to applause.
“I’m a Catholic, we have people of all faiths. This idea that you can just check your faith at the door, people would say. When you’re voting on issues how do you separate your faith from the way you vote? Faith is part of who you are. It’s part of who I am, it’s part of what establishes the values that I bring to this job and I would hope that everybody brings a set of values rooted in faith when they’re making consequential decisions that don’t just affect our country but affect the entire world,” he continued.
Where does one even begin? Every single thing about this is wrong, whether through ignorance or dishonesty. First, Thomas Jefferson was not the “author of the Constitution.” In fact, he wasn’t even at the Constitutional Convention that drafted it. He was in France at the time. Perhaps Scalise is just conflating him with James Madison, his protege`, who is often referred to as the “father of the Constitution” for his incredibly influential role in drafting it.
But whether he meant Jefferson or Madison, it’s nothing short of bizarre that he would invoke either one of them while arguing against separation of church and state. What does that quote from Jefferson have to do with separation? Absolutely nothing. He was talking about slavery at the time. And both Jefferson and Madison were staunch defenders of a strict separation of church and state. Indeed, Madison’s views on separation went further than even the ACLU does today. So he uses an irrelevant quote from the wrong founding father to attack church/state separation, and that founding father just happens to be the one most closely identified with strict separation and the one who defended it most vociferously. That’s just…bizarre. And he said that to applause from a clearly blinkered audience.
But then he makes it even worse by suddenly shifting from separation of church and state, which the Constitution requires, and separation of beliefs and actions, which it does not. He’s not only conflated two different founders, he’s conflated two very different ideas. Separation of church and state means the government has to stay out of the business of religion, it can’t endorse religious beliefs or codify them into law so that non-adherents have to follow them, nor can it interfere with churches except in the most rare of circumstances. It does not mean that a legislator has to ignore their religious beliefs when deciding how to vote on something. That is truly an impossible thing to do and to expect someone to do. But that has nothing to do with separation of church and state.
This whole diatribe is just so mindlessly inane that it leaves one’s jaw agape.