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Michael J.W. Stickings

Michael J.W. Stickings

Posted: October 29, 2010 10:29 AM

Ken Buck, the Colorado Republican who thinks that gays are like alcoholics, said last year that he objected to a fundamental principle of American constitutional democracy:

I disagree strongly with the concept of separation of church and state. It was not written into the Constitution.

Now, he rightly noted that the Constitution bars "a religion that's sanctioned by the government," but, in his view, that "doesn't mean that we need to have a separation between government and religion." He specifically criticized President Obama for (supposedly) calling it a "holiday tree" instead of a Christmas tree.

But that's exactly the point, albeit on a minor scale. Government shouldn't, and isn't allowed to, support one religion before or against all others. Now, I actually don't have a problem with calling it a Christmas tree. It's true, of the course, that the "Christmas" season has become more of a generic "holiday" season, a season that American can celebrate in different ways, some secular, some not. But a tree at that time of year is historically a Christmas tree, just as a Menorah is Jewish, though, of course, non-Christians can still celebrate the holiday with a tree, and that is the point of the separation of church and state. If you want to call it a Christmas tree and celebrate (the myth of) Jesus of Nazareth's birth, fine, that's up to you. But if you want to call it a holiday tree, spend time with your family, exchange gifts, and enjoy the season according to your own values, however non-Christian or vaguely Christian, that's fine too. Welcome to America. Welcome to a free society that puts liberty before government promoting a specific faith.

All of this, though, is beside the point -- or, rather, an obfuscation of the point. Think Progress gets to the heart of the matter:

Needless to say, while the Constitution doesn't contain the exact words "separation of church and state," legal scholars and the courts agree it does prohibit the establishment or endorsement of religion, and that the involvement Buck wants is dangerous. As Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in a concurring opinion in 1984, the government is prohibited from "making adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person's standing in the political community." In 1801, Thomas Jefferson wrote that "religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God," and argued the Constitution required "building a wall of separation between Church & State."


Also, Buck's charge about Obama and the White House Christmas tree doesn't rise above the level of a crude viral e-mail hoax: or in the words of FactCheck.org, "hooey."

That's right, it's all a lie, one that Buck, ignorant or not, was obviously more than willing to spread. While Obama would have been justified to call it a holiday tree, he didn't. It was a traditional Christmas tree.

And that's Sandra Day O'Connor who wrote that opinion -- a Reagan appointee to the Supreme Court.

And that's Thomas Jefferson, a rather more impressive authority than Ken Buck, who interpreted the Constitution as requiring a clear separation of church and state.

But Buck is hardly alone in seeking to undermine one of the foundations of America, as Steve Benen, an expert on this issue, reminds us:

Of course, if this sounds familiar, it's because we've seen and heard quite a few attacks these First Amendment principles lately. Delaware's Christine O'Donnell recently humiliated herself during a debate by rejecting the separation of church state as a constitutional principle, and Nevada's Sharron Angle recently made very similar remarks. Last week, Rush Limbaugh denounced the very idea of church-state separation, and in April, former half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) rejected any notion that "God should be separated from the state."


I just wrote up a lengthy item on the history here a few days ago, so I won't re-hash it again. Needless to say, the separation of church and state is a bedrock principle of the American system of government, and the foundation for the greatest experiment in religious liberty the world has ever known.

And he asks an important question:

But putting aside the fact that these unhinged Republicans simply have no idea what they're talking about, I have a related concern: what is it, exactly, they'd replace church-state separation with?


What we're seeing is, to a certain extent, the rise of the Taliban wing of the Republican Party -- the Taliban rails against secularism, and insists that the law must mirror and be based on their interpretation of a religious text. Buck, O'Donnell, Angle, Limbaugh, and Palin have all argued something eerily similar. Thomas Jefferson said the First Amendment built "a wall of separation between church and state," and these Republicans are anxious to tear it down.

Let's say, for the sake of conversation, they succeed. What then? Once the foundation for religious liberty in America is gone, what does Ken Buck suggest we replace it with? There are some countries that endorse Buck's worldview and intermix God and government -- Iran and Afghanistan under Taliban rule come to mind -- but they're generally not countries the United States tries to emulate.

So what do Buck and his ilk have in store for us? A European-style official church? A theocracy along the lines of Saudi Arabia? Are conservatives who want the government to shrink also telling us they want the state to play a larger role in promoting and "helping" religious institutions?

When the right denounces American the principles that have made us great, they stop being merely wrong, and start becoming even more dangerous.

I think that's exactly right. The Ken Bucks and Christine O'Donnells and Sharron Angles of the Republican Party, the "Taliban wing" of the GOP that more and more is taking over the party, are profoundly dangerous and deeply anti-American, and it's not enough just to laugh at them for being stupid. They pose a threat to American democracy, and to America itself, and to the very idea of "America," that, in a way, far exceeds, is far more nefarious than, and is far more likely to succeed than the threat posed by Islamic jihadism.

For while jihadism seeks to destroy America, or at least to cause significant physical damage to America (and to kill Americans), it comes from outside and can be opposed with actions and policies that seek to destroy it first. Republican Talibanism, in contrast, seeks to undermine America from within, removing enough bricks so that the entire wall comes crumbling down. Jihadists can cause immense damage, but Americans can collectively stand firm and resolute in their conviction that the terrorists will not win (even as they disagree over how best to defeat them). But these Republicans can win elected office, as many of them have already, and inject their virus into the body politic. There may not be an equivalent of 9/11 for these anti-Americans, but that makes what they are doing all the more difficult to detect, and to fight back against. You can have a war on terror, however misguided, but what do you do about the Republican Taliban?

Well, you have to vote against them, of course, and you have to see through their propaganda (or, in some cases, just pay attention to them, given how open about their goals some of them are) to see what they're really all about. If you needed another reason to oppose them when you go to the polls next Tuesday, here you go.

(Cross-posted from The Reaction.)

 

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