Was Thomas Jefferson a card-carrying communist? Tony Perkins seems to think so.
On the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, recycled an old line from the early days of the Religious Right. Praising President Ronald Reagan as the "architect" of the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall, Perkins advised his supporters that there is an effort to build a similar wall here in the United States: "a wall between church and state."
"If this effort succeeds," he warned darkly in a Nov. 11 email alert, "the U.S. may follow the Soviet Union into the ash heap of history. We must all work to tear down this perilous wall and allow freedom to truly ring "
That is a stern warning but a peculiar one indeed.
The wall between church and state is not a recent post-communist invention as Tony Perkins wants his followers to believe. Church-state separation is a policy forged by great American leaders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in the dawn of our republic.
As Jefferson put it in his famous 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists (PDF): "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 & State."
So that church-state wall is not a hostile barrier, but a protective structure the American people erected to protect our religious freedom.
Our founders understood that government "help" to religion usually end up hurting it in the long run. Thanks to their foresight, America has struck the right balance. Religious groups in America are supported with voluntary contributions, not tax dollars, allowing them to maintain a strong independent voice. Houses of worship are free to seek new members as they please. Institutions of the American government that serve Americans of many faiths or none are free from sectarian control. All have freedom to proclaim their views. No one can be forced to support or oppose religion.
The First Amendment to the Constitution clearly states the principle of church-state separation: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.... "
That the founders had the vision to build this principle into our Constitution is nothing short of remarkable. Today America is an open and free society of nearly 300 million Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Atheists and others. All enjoy the right to worship or not worship unhindered by the whim of government officials or state-appointed religious leaders.
Instead of wanting to tear down the wall between church and state, Perkins and his friends on the Religious Right should see that it is that very wall that protects them just as it protects all Americans. It represents a promise of freedom that few countries have had the courage to fully embrace.