Did Scalia Skip History Class?

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has long distinguished himself as an opponent of church-state separation. Now, however, more than merely taking a stand against core First Amendment principles, Scalia has decided to turn history on its head.

At an interfaith conference celebrating the 350th anniversary of America's Jewish community, Scalia declared that the Founders intended for religion to play a part in government. To further his claim, the Associated Press reported that he pointed to the hackneyed examples of official religiosity in America: the word "God" on U.S. currency; chaplains of various faiths in the military and the legislature; real estate tax exemption for houses of worship and the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Not satisfied merely misinterpreting the legacy of the founders, Scalia then cryptically asked "Did it turn out that by reason of the separation of church and state, the Jews were safer in Europe than they were in the United States?" He answered himself, saying, "I don't think so."

Many listeners at the event took this to mean that Scalia was blaming the Holocaust on church-state separation. If this is indeed the way that the man who is under consideration to be the next Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court sees world history, there is no appropriate response but outrage.

Nazi Germany was far from a bastion of secularism. The Common Dreams News Center and Ethics Daily both note prominent links between the Nazi state under Hitler and German religious institutions. By decree, Hitler merged the German Protestant Church into the Reich, and held the legal authority to appoint priests with the state.

The State Government guaranteed the funding of the official Protestant church at the same time that the Nazi party made overtures to the Catholic hierarchy. Pope Pius XII went so far as to arrange for special greetings to Hitler on his birthday. A famous photo from this time shows two Catholic bishops giving the Nazi salute.

By popping off about the different traditions of Europe and the United States, Scalia appears to be obfuscating about the true nature of American and European history. In an attempt to reinforce his point that secular Europe is the opposite of religious America, Scalia noted, "In Europe, religion-neutral leaders almost never publicly use the word ‘God.'"

What Scalia fails to grasp is the extent to which the tradition of laïcité in France and secularism in other European counties is both inspired by the example of America's Founders and counter to direct experience with theocratic efforts to merge church and state. Europe, we often forget, went through the Dark Ages and a long period of religious warfare.

Concluded Scalia, "The founding fathers never used the phrase separation of church and state."

That's just wrong. This assertion and the Religious Right's oft-repeated claims that America was founded as a Christian nation are easily debunked by the words of the Founders. For more information, please download AU's materials on this subject: