Trump Religious Adviser Robert Jeffress Has Questions. We’ve Got Answers.

There are many bad things about Donald Trump’s presidency, but one of the worst is that it has thrust people like Pastor Robert Jeffress into the national spotlight.

Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, was one of any number of far-right theocrats with a smidgen of regional notoriety at best until he hitched himself to Trump’s campaign. Now, as one of Trump’s inner circle of religious advisers, Jeffress is much loved by the Fox News Channel and appears there regularly.

The fame seems to be going to Jeffress’ head. During a recent speech, he boasted about his media appearances and mocked those who oppose him.

“You know,” he remarked, “every time I am debating one of these pinhead lawyers from the ACLU or the Freedom From Religion Foundation on Fox News, I always ask them about this. I said, ‘Can you explain to me why, in the 1860s, it was constitutional to teach the Bible, or to pray, or to put Nativity scenes in the public school, but in 1980 – 120 years later – you can’t even post the copies of the Ten Commandments? Can you explain to me what changed? Did the Constitution change and nobody told us about it? And do the judges today have greater insight into what our Founders meant than those who lived closest to the Founders?’” (Thanks to Hemant Mehta of the “Friendly Atheist” blog for first reporting this.)

Pastor Robert Jeffress should educate himself about the history of religion in public schools.

The idea that Jeffress thinks he can best expert civil liberties lawyers is amusing on its own. The situation becomes downright hysterical once one realizes that Jeffress is abysmally ignorant of the history of religion in public schools.

With that thought in mind, I’d like to answer his questions:

Can you explain to me why, in the 1860s, it was constitutional to teach the Bible, or to pray, or to put Nativity scenes in the public school, but in 1980 – 120 years later – you can’t even post the copies of the Ten Commandments?

Actually, several courts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries said it wasn’t permissible to do those things.

Let’s step back a bit. The fact is, there were not a lot of public schools in America in 1860. That concept didn’t start catching on until after the Civil War. As states began to build public schools and pass mandatory attendance laws, religion immediately became a flashpoint for controversy.

Parents were soon in state courts, fighting the compulsory worship that was being imposed on their children. Ohio’s Supreme Court ruled in 1869 that public schools were not required to sponsor daily Bible readings. Wisconsin’s supreme court struck down mandatory school prayer in 1890. Nebraska’s high court followed suit in 1903, and the Illinois Supreme Court did the same in 1910.

The issue flared up in other states as well. The claim that mandatory prayer, Bible reading and other religious exercises were common in public schools and widely accepted until the U.S. Supreme Court’s school prayer rulings of 1962 and ’63 is a Religious Right myth. Such practices were always controversial and were often invalidated at the state level.

Did the Constitution change and nobody told us about it?

Yes, the Constitution did change – as anyone who has read legal history knows. In July of 1868, the 14th Amendment was ratified. It was designed, in part, to make it clear that states could not violate citizens’ fundamental rights.

The history of this is a bit complicated, but the passage of that amendment began a process legal scholars call “incorporation” whereby many of the protections found in the Bill of Rights – originally rights that only the federal government was bound to respect – were imposed on state governments as well. This opened up new opportunities for people to bring civil liberties cases, including ones dealing with church-state separation, in the federal courts. I’m surprised Jeffress hasn’t heard about this; it was in all of the papers.

And do the judges today have greater insight into what our Founders meant than those who lived closest to the Founders?

This is a classic false dichotomy. Judges today don’t have to guess what the Founders might have thought about these issues. They can read the Founders’ actual words. More importantly, we have a historical record of their deeds, including the Constitution they wrote. From these words and actions, judges can ascertain that these men strongly opposed force and compulsion in matters of religion. From here it’s a short step to the realization that no American – especially a young child in a taxpayer-supported institution – should be compelled to take part in a religious exercise against his or her will.

I recently published a paper about the history of religion in public schools. It’s a fascinating topic, and I’d urge Jeffress to read my article. He might learn a few things. That’s good because when he’s arguing with a “pinhead lawyer,” I’m sure Jeffress doesn’t want to come off as someone who has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.