Written By: Anton Sawyer
This article is part of an ongoing series where I break down courses offered at PragerU and expose some of the misdirection they're peddling. Each course is readily available to everyone (the free stuff). I would love to sign up for their complete online courses, so if you would like to see me go in-depth to one of their official courses, then please “buy a coffee”. I will use those funds to “advance my education” through the “prestigious” University that is Prager.
Debunking Courses Offered At Prager University—Lesson 5: “Is America’s Government Secular?”
It seemed to me that the freedom of (and from) religion had been determined in early American history. Though the courts through the years—both local and federal—have made some rulings that bend this interpretation to the point of near absurdity, there has always been some other major ruling that would come along and help right the ship a little.
In the 21st Century, it seems to most everyone that the separation of church and state had been understood in a specific “way.” This way typically involves some political leader espousing how they allow their God to lead each and every one of their core principles and is their guidance in every decision in life … except governance. After this leader does their espousing, they meet up with whichever religious kingpin has the most financial sway in guiding how their congressional votes will turn out and the two have a “discussion.” As an average citizen, it’s our job to play along for as long as those same leaders don’t become TOO egregious in their actions.
According to PragerU, I was wrong.
Today we are going to look at secularism in government, and what is its role exactly. I promise that no matter what your interpretation of our 1st Amendment right is, you will learn something.
In an attempt to maintain complete transparency, all research and statistical fact-checking for all articles can be found in the bibliography linked here.
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To keep things clear, all statements made from the video will be in bold, and my responses will be in italics.
Today’s presenter is Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program at Princeton University for Prager University.
It has become a dogma of progressive ideology that America is a “secular” nation. What do people mean by secular? The argument goes this way: “Since the Constitution establishes a strict separation of church and state, religion has no place in how the country is to be governed. Religion is a purely “private” matter and therefore must be kept out of politics or public policy-making.”
So far, I’m with him. Though I was being (somewhat) facetious in my opening statements, this is the American cornerstone idea that faith should not be the direct source of policy-making. Seems legit.
There is a problem with this claim, however: it’s false. What the Constitution actually does when it comes to religion is first, ban religious tests of any sort for public office—that’s in Article 6—and second, forbid the enactment of any “law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”—those are the words of the 1st Amendment. The plain meaning of those words is that Congress was forbidden from one, establishing a national church (on the model of the Church of England); and two, attempting to disestablish or interfering with the established churches that existed in some of the states—in certain cases for decades after ratification of the 1st Amendment.
He isn’t inaccurate in his statements pertaining to the sections of the Constitution and what they say. Both of them are contained therein. There are only two misdirections that can be found in this section.
The first is when he states that congress was forbidden from establishing a national church or faith. This is correct but completely flies in the face of the statement made by PragerU founder Dennis Prager who made some statements at Politicon in 2017 which firmly uphold his belief that every law and foundation of the American way of life stems from us being a Judeo-Christian nation specifically. Making declarations like: “Objective moral standards come from God. As I have written and spoken about [before], if there is no God who declares murder wrong, murder can be subjectively wrong but not objectively wrong. So, while there can certainly be nonbelievers who hold murder, stealing and other actions wrong, without God, those are opinions, not moral facts. Without the God of the Bible, there are no moral facts.” And “Many secular conservatives recognize that the end of religion in the West leads to moral chaos—which is exactly what we are witnessing today and exactly what we witnessed in Europe last century. When Christianity died in Europe, we got communism, fascism, and Nazism. What will we get in America if Christianity and Judeo-Christian values die?”
The second misdirection is when he says that the national Church cannot be based on the Church of England specifically. Though the hatred for that church was at a zenith, many of the founding fathers didn’t want America to be under the guide of ANY religion. 2nd US President John Adams once said, “The United States is not a Christian nation any more than it is a Jewish or a Mohammedan nation.” So, for the Prager video to say that it was only the Church of England which a national religion could not be based on is a half-truth.
But what about the “separation of church and state?” That’s in the Constitution too, isn’t it? Well, no. Try as you might, you will not find the words “separation of church and state” in the Constitution. The famous phrase comes from a letter that Thomas Jefferson, who was not at the Constitutional Convention (he was in France at the time), wrote years later to a Baptist community in Danbury, Connecticut. Jefferson, in his characteristically eloquent way, was simply trying to capture the spirit of the 1st Amendment prohibiting the establishment of a national religion. The author of the Declaration of Independence was committed to an America where people were free to practice any faith, or no faith, as their consciences dictate. None of the founding fathers, including Jefferson (who was among the least religious of them, though not an atheist), ever entertained the idea that there was to be a separation of religion from public life or from politics.
This section illustrates one of the most effective deception techniques around—start with a known fact and then use that as establishing credit on the overall topic to make the lie you’re about to spout be more believable. He’s correct in the fact that there is no use of the phrase “separation of church and state” in the Constitution specifically. But beyond that, he is taking the entire concept of a keystone to our nation’s core and decimating it by simply dismissing the words of our nation’s 3rd President who made his intentions crystal clear in the letter. To say that one of the greatest political arguments ever, an argument that has brought brothers to blows—and at times divided the nation completely—was predicated on Jefferson being “cute” or “wordy” with his response to a fellow citizen? I understand that interpretation of similar source material is how we can have so many off-shoots of faith that all center around the Holy Bible. But when someone uses the phrase “separation of church and state” with Jefferson’s other context—it’s black and white.
The secularist claim that our Constitution consigns religion to the purely private sphere is contradicted by the words and actions of the greatest figures in American history.
From Washington, who called for national days of prayer, to Lincoln, who proclaimed a National Day of Prayer and fasting; to Martin Luther King. King, of course, was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, a Baptist clergyman, who fought racial segregation and discrimination in the most explicitly Biblical terms.
The issue I have with all the referencing to these former presidents is in the fact that it assumes they had a specific faith with a specific agenda for that faith.
Yes, the presidents did mention God, but they didn’t mention one ultimate denomination or one ultimate official way to perform the national prayers, and they never pushed for legislation during their administrations that would single out one denomination as being “the one.”
What the presidents did was smart; they kept the prayer and every specific part of the prayer vague enough to be inclusive to all Christ-based beliefs. This is a double-edged sword as it's positive by allowing everyone into the party, but it’s also negative because it also means that those with an agenda can find (or manifest) meanings in the idea of a national prayer to espouse whatever their doctrine is. It’s like when a Baptist family thinks a Lutheran family will go to Hell because of wording or interpretive differences between prayer semantics, or vice-versa. If you keep what you’re doing vague enough, both will feel like you’re talking to them alone (and therefore helping to perpetuate their biases).
Looking at the examples PragerU provided, there is also some context that needs to be addressed to paint a full look at everything surrounding what these presidents did. Washington called for a National Day of Prayer AND Thanksgiving to be observed in the 1780s. Though it is possible to see that this is a specific declaration towards the belief of a specific faith, it’s also worth noting that this tradition had already been commonplace in New England at the time and Washington was just expanding upon it in an attempt for us to gain our own national holidays and identity. There were other prayers that Washington led during this time, but none were done in such a way as to promote a specific belief system.
Also, using Dr. King as a reference is somewhat mind-boggling. Given the fact that he was one of the leaders fighting against the racism perpetuated by the conservatives of America adds a lack of self-awareness allowing for a nice—though somewhat confusing—touch.
If you believe the secularist understanding of the separation of church and state, Martin Luther King violated that doctrine in almost everything he did. And so did every president in American history. Every single one invoked God in his inaugural address. For Martin Luther King, as for so many other Americans, racial injustice was not only a violation of the Golden Rule but, first and foremost, a violation of the teaching of the Book of Genesis that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God.
First off, Dr. King was not an elected legislator, so it would be impossible for him to violate the separation of church and state as he was literally unable to write or pass laws that could be brought about to promote his specific faith.
Beyond this, there is another half-truth to this section. Conflating the idea that if you believe in something, this automatically means that your religion has been the main factor in your legislative goals. This is a backfire on two levels.
The first is that you now admit that every GOP member who has said they do not make laws based on their beliefs while also voting for laws specifically based on beliefs, and not what’s in the best interest of their constituents, are all liars.
The second, Prager has also done is laid out one of their famous “all-or-none” scenarios. Where unless you are an atheist that makes it a point to add the phrase “God is dead” to every one of your stump speeches, then ANY invocation of God is on the same level as violating the 1st Amendment—even if you never pass a law that remotely comes close to issues of faith.
There are in the world truly secularist regimes. France, with its system of “laicite”—religion must be exercised only in the private, not the public, sphere—is one. So, of course, are the communist regimes of China, Cuba, and North Korea. In such regimes, secularism is the official public philosophy, and religion is, to the extent it is permitted at all, restricted to the private domain.
One of my favorite misdirection tactics is the use of similes, and it’s nice to see PragerU keeping up with this tradition when they compare areas of the world where religion is practiced privately, in comparison to the United States, by holding up the most unhumanitarian places: China, Cuba, and North Korea. It’s always a tactic that works by allowing for the listener to automatically know that anything which is against religion, is nothing short of a dictatorship headed by a madman. Sadly, this tactic still works to this day.
But that is not an accurate description of the United States, at all. And how could it be? Although we separate the institutions of religion from those of government, we do that not to make religion subservient to the state, but rather to protect it from the state.
Protect it from what? Taxes perhaps?
We are, after all, a nation which in its very founding document acknowledges the Creator—God himself—as the source of justice owed to all human beings. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Far from being “secularist,” the American constitutional order holds that our fundamental rights are not privileges conferred by any merely human power; they are, rather, gifts—endowments—from God himself. And they are “unalienable”—that is, they cannot legitimately be taken away by the government or any other human authority—precisely because they were not given to us by any human authority. Indeed, we couldn’t give them away even if we wanted to. Why? Because they come from the hand of God. So, is the claim that America is a “secular” nation true? The answer should now be clear. I’m Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program at Princeton University for Prager University—End out.
The founding fathers did not have a problem with spirituality, they had a problem with organized religion. But that’s the conundrum; so many individuals who are devout members of any faith oftentimes don’t realize that there is a difference between spirituality and religion. To those who are devout, they are viewed as one-and-the-same. It’s a common thought that the parishioner (or whatever title the church leader has) is there to answer the questions of the followers and can communicate with the lord. It’s also common to think that only through this communication that the gospel can continue as a “living thing,” and be an eternal wellspring of spiritual growth of the faithful. Spirituality and organized religion are two different things, and the founding fathers knew that. They wanted a nation filled with people who would live their lives by the golden rules of don’t kill, don’t steal, treat thy neighbor as thyself, etc. But they also knew that once the organization of these philosophies came into play, no matter the core beliefs, man would always mutate them into corruption on some level. This is why the founding fathers would ask the nation to pray, but not tell everyone the “correct” way to do so.
Well, it seems PragerU and this course did not disappoint in dragging out all the “golden oldies” of deception tactics to prove their point once again. Specifically naming some of the most hated countries by those with a conservative bent to illustrate how terrible a nation without Christianity would be?
Conflating personal spirituality with organized religion to the point where they become one solid mass, indivisible?
And finally, completely ignoring the fact that if our country was so enmeshed with Christianity—as PragerU would like you to believe—that we would have already designated ourselves with a national religion hundreds of years ago?
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