First Amendment vs. First Commandment

Sharron Angle and separation of church and state

Sharron Angle’s pastor, John Reed, chats with some visiting congregants at Sonrise Church.

Sharron Angle’s pastor, John Reed, chats with some visiting congregants at Sonrise Church.

Photo By dennis myers

I was checking newspaper websites in June to see if there had been anything new that day I had missed. On the Las Vegas Sun site, I came upon a just-released transcript of Jon Ralston’s interview with Nevada U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle:

Ralston: The separation of church and state arises out of the Constitution.

Angle: No, it doesn’t, Jon.

Ralston: Oh it doesn’t? Oh, the Founding Fathers didn’t believe in the separation of church and state, the Establishment Clause, the First Amendment?

Angle: Actually, Thomas Jefferson has been misquoted, like I’ve been misquoted out of context. Thomas Jefferson was actually addressing a church and telling them through his address that there had been a wall of separation put up between the church and the state precisely to protect the church.

Ralston: So there should be no separation.

Angle: To protect the church from being taken over by a state religion. And that’s what they meant by that.

I recognized Angle’s reference to Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists, and was a little surprised. In every story I had read that referenced Angle’s religion, the reporter described her as a Southern Baptist. My memory was that Jefferson and Baptists had a close political alliance prompted by their agreement on issues of religion and government. The Baptists adored Jefferson—there is a famous story about how, when cheese was not mass produced and was very expensive, they gave him a huge cheese of more than a thousand pounds.

I looked up Angle’s biography on the Nevada Legislature’s website. Her most recent bio listed Sonrise Church in Reno as her church. I went to the Sonrise site, which read, “We are a mixture of contemporary worship, Calvary Chapel verse by verse teaching, and a Baptist Bible based foundation.”

I needed to do some research.

Baptizing the Constitution

Henry Robinson Palmer wrote in 1899: “To be a Baptist was a grievous offence in a majority of the colonies, and to persist in Baptist practices was to invite beatings, fines and imprisonment.”

Virtually from the start of Baptist colonial history, the church was involved in the fight for religious freedom, and its record was very clean.

“The common assertion that other sects persecuted also, is not a valid excuse; for, in the first place, the rule was not universal; neither the Quakers nor Baptists showed any similar intolerance in Pennsylvania or Rhode Island [where they had influence],” reported Putnam’s Monthly Magazine in 1855.

Some of the founders were defenders of the Baptists. Young James Madison, who considered going into the ministry, was a defender of five imprisoned Baptists in Virginia. It was Madison who, as a U.S. House member, later sponsored the bill of rights.

In 1802, Jefferson replied to a letter from three Connecticut Baptist leaders with what became known as the Danbury letter:

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, 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.”

Sharron Angle on primary election night in Las Vegas.


Thus did “wall of separation,” the phrase Angle referenced that has come to embody the separation of church and state, enter the political and legal lexicon, though it did not originate with Jefferson. It originated 162 years earlier with a Baptist leader. Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island as a refuge from religious intolerance and helped found the first colonial Baptist Church, made clear that he wanted to limit not just the behavior of the government but that of the church, as well: “When they [the Church] have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the Candlestick, etc., and made His Garden a wilderness as it is this day.”

Of course, governments usually oppress religions, not the other way around, so the matter seldom came up, but Williams was not the only Baptist who anticipated the problem of undue influence of church leaders on government.

Baptist leader Isaac Backus wrote in 1773 that separation should inhibit both government and churches: “And where these two kinds of government [civil and ecclesiastical], and the weapons which belong to them, are well distinguished, and improved according to the true nature and end of their institution, the effects are happy, and they do not at all interfere with each other: but where they have been confounded together, no tongue nor pen can fully describe the mischiefs that have ensued; of which the Holy Ghost gave early and plain warnings.”

The U.S. Constitution was carefully written as a secular document. During ratification it was attacked on that ground because it did not invoke the name of God or of Jesus or any other term of divinity. As the founding generation began aging and dying off, the clergy launched a new effort to amend the preamble to mention Jesus. In 1793, New York Presbyterian minister John Mason gave a sermon complaining that the “very Constitution which the singular goodness of God enabled us to establish does not so much as recognize His being!” The effort for a “Christian amendment” lasted decades and did not die out until the 20th century. But the Baptists opposed the amendment, even after the faith was split into factions by the issue of slavery. As late as 1895, Southern Baptists were protesting against the Christian amendment in Atlanta.


Back to Nevada

Angle’s reference in the Ralston interview to Jefferson’s Danbury letter dealt with recent events. In 1998, the FBI did a forensic examination of the letter, finding erasures that gave some insight into Jefferson’s drafting of the letter. A Library of Congress curator, James Hutson, then wrote a paper opining that Jefferson was making a political statement which, therefore, he didn’t really mean. Other historians disagreed, and Hutson himself backed off some of his conclusions, but the evangelical right seized on Hutson’s interpretation while ignoring the other historians.

I decided to go to church, Sonrise Church.

For those who think the Sunday services of evangelical churches are akin to precinct meetings, the real thing would be a disappointment. At Sonrise (Angle now also worships at Fellowship Community Church, I learned from the Sonrise pastor), the closest thing to politics was an announcement of a recession-related church budget cutback.

Song is a big part of the service. When a viewscreen announced “Amazing Grace” as the next hymn, the congregation broke into cheers.

Over pizza afterward, Pastor John Reed chatted about the issues Angle raised. He distinguished between religious liberty and the separation of church and state. The Constitution guarantees protection of churches from government, not of government from churches, he said. Churches have every right to influence government.

“The Baptists fled to America for religious liberty, not separation of church and state,” he said. “I don’t believe in separation of church and state. I believe that phrase is not in the constitution. It is not a constitutional concept.”

Of course, the phrase “religious liberty” does not appear in the Constitution, either, so interpretation is involved. I pointed out that colonial Baptists were victimized by competing Christian churches. How does a faith seek and exercise power in government without imposing its doctrine on other churches?

“The Christian denominations are in agreement like 95 percent of everything,” he answered. “The differences are so minute. … So in the Christian faith, the religion is pretty unified. There’s different denominations and their differences are so minute and minor.”

What happens when Judaism becomes a part of the equation?

“I think we’re in the same boat,” he said. “When you have practicing Jews that are practicing the Old Testament [Tanakh] and the Christians accept the exact same book of the Old Testament—I mean, the same views and teachings of the Old Testament’s word—we’re in agreement … Jews, Christians are pro-life, pro-God, pro-family, pro-freedom, pro-religion. I mean, we’re like 95 percent in harmony already.”

I was baptized at Reno’s First Methodist and grew up in local Catholic school, and Pastor Reed was describing a Christianity I had never encountered. Without even bringing the issue of Judaism into it, my experience was that competing Christian denominations had difficulty agreeing on lunch. I needed another perspective.

At a B Street restaurant, Rev. Thomas Butler of Sparks United Methodist Church listened to my questions. He declined to discuss Angle’s candidacy but was happy to discuss the issues. He disputed the idea that Christian churches marched in lockstep. He cited the case of Theresa Schiavo, in which Congress intervened in a family dispute over whether a long-comatose woman’s feeding tube should be removed, as an instance of sharp disagreement among sects.

He said not only is Christianity not overwhelmingly united, he thinks it does not agree on most things.

Rev. Tom Butler: Christians are all over the issues map.

Photo By dennis myers

“And oftentimes they [church leaders] don’t agree with each other. I would say most of the time they don’t agree. … The process of moral discourse, which needs to be taking place in our culture on a lot of issues, requires an openness to hearing the thoughtful perspectives provided by persons who are motivated by their religious convictions, with an understanding that no one perspective is likely to convince the entire population. … No, I don’t think there’s any way you can say that 95 percent of Americans agree on anything. If that were the case, we would not be having the need for elections. Nor would we have controversy over decisions made by political leaders.”

Returning to the topic of Judaism, since Pastor Reed described it as aligned with Christianity on abortion, I researched it and found that Jewish doctrine assigns much greater value to the life of the mother than do many Christian churches. In some circumstances, when the life of the mother is threatened, abortion is virtually mandatory. As in some Christian faiths, abortion access for women is supported, except in some orthodox readings of doctrine.

Plainly, the imposition of some Christian churches’ doctrine on government would be a threat to competing Christian churches and to Judaism.

But Pastor Reed also tended to exclude the views of some Christians or Christian faiths from legitimacy.

“Liberals have their own religion, but it contradicts the religious community and the people of faith,” he said.

“Isn’t that kind of convenient?” I asked. “If you say that liberal Christians are not real Christians …”

“No, I didn’t say liberal Christians, liberal politicians. Liberal politicians,” he said.

But despite his denial, he was disdainful in our conversations of some other Christian faiths, and his church lends out copies of DVDs that attack other Christian churches. In his talk with me, Pastor Reed had praise for only three denominations—Calvary Chapel, the Baptists and, with some caution, Catholicism.

One of the DVDs is titled Exposing the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Watchtower, Awake Organizations. Another title virtually reads the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) out of Christianity: Christianity or Mormonism?

The LDS church, in fact, pushes one of Pastor Reed’s buttons, and the fact that Harry Reid is a member seems to be only a part of the reason.

“His religion’s a cult,” Pastor Reed said. “The Christian community—all the Christians, theologians and scholars, all recognize that, that Mormonism is a cult. I have books in my library on cults, and it lists Mormonism right there with all these bizarre cults. Well, there must be a reason. I mean, here a member of a cult is one of the most powerful people in the United States. Doesn’t that alarm you? And his allegiance is to Salt Lake City. Something is up with that. Something’s weird. But nobody touches that. … Harry Reid’s allegiance is to Salt Lake City. The Mormon church is rich, powerful, they do illegal things. They do secretive things. They’ve got all this money. They own American businesses. There’s weirdness going on there. Churches are not multi-millionaire organizations like the Mormon church. You know, there’s some weirdness with that, but nobody questions it, nobody asks one question to Harry Reid and says, ‘Tell us about your faith. What does a Mormon believe?’ Ask him about the holy garments that he wears that protect him from evil. Isn’t that kooky? Ask him about getting his body parts anointed by oil. Isn’t that kooky? Ask him about when he goes to the temple and he gets baptized for dead people. Isn’t that kooky? Ask him about the hit squad of the Mormon church and why they need people to kill Mormons that go against them. Isn’t that controlling? Ask him how they shun people, then they get their family members to disown them and divorce them if they dare leave the Mormon church. Isn’t that cultish? I mean, I could go on and on. The Mormon church is a cult, and Harry Reid is a powerful person in a cult, and nobody even questions it.”

He suggested Reid has made “secret promises” to the LDS church.

Pastor Reed, of course, does not speak for Angle any more than Barack Obama is responsible for Jeremiah Wright’s pronouncements. (Angle did not respond to requests for an interview). But Pastor Reed’s comments cast the church/state issue into sharp relief. (It is only fair to report that James Richardson, one of the world’s leading scholars on sects and cults, told us the LDS church is not a cult.)

If some Christian churches and Christian believers can be defined as outside Christianity by labeling them cults, how could one Christian church, or several, gain ascendancy in government power without its doctrine posing a threat to the doctrines of other Christian faiths? How can it happen without rupturing the balance that exists among faiths, Christian and otherwise? It is easy to understand why Jefferson’s “wall of separation” cited in the Danbury letter offers protection to some faiths and is considered a threat by others.

Even if Jefferson was removed from the equation, as Angle envisioned, that still leaves Madison to be dealt with. Madison was even more militant on separation of church and state than Jefferson, though he expressed it in less memorable language, and Madison’s prestige as an architect of the Constitution is even greater. Madison, known as the “Father of the Constitution,” believed the separation was healthy not just for government but for the faiths themselves. By becoming influential in government, he wrote, churches “have in many instances gone to ruin, or are in a very dilapidated state …” He wrote of “the danger of encroachment of Ecclesiastical Bodies” on government, which does not leave much doubt on whether he wanted separation to work both ways.

Separation of state and church

Why does it matter in 2010? Obviously, no one is going to force Nevadans to pay for the support of a state church. Nevertheless, the primacy within governments of specific faiths threatens other faiths in disputes from abortion to textbooks. Constitutional scholar Leonard Levy has noted that in “a school district dominated by Baptists, once the foremost champions of the separation of church and state, a Lutheran mother recently objected to school prayers and to her children being taunted for their beliefs …” What state more than Nevada, with its many libertarian laws, has a greater stake in the separation of church and state? When Sharron Angle said in April that some things in government are “a violation of the First Commandment,” how, given the disagreement of Christians, are we to know what falls inside and outside fair game?

Pastor Reed’s confidence in Angle is pronounced. He said he encouraged her to launch her political career by running for the legislature, and he truly believes her basic decency can change politics. “Very involved in the church in all different aspects,” he said of her role at Sonrise. “The sweetest, kindest—I mean, Snow White. There’s no dirt. I mean, everyone comes—‘Tell us the dirt.’ There’s no dirt on Sharron.”

He did not stop there, though. “The dirt’s on Harry Reid, you know—the whole Mormon thing. I could tell you the junk about Mormonism and the weird things that go on.”

The pastor believes Angle has a role he compared to Esther, queen of the Persian king Ahasuerus. Esther’s husband did not know she was a Jew until Haman laid plans to kill all the Jews in the empire. She then revealed her own ethnicity and saved her people. Sharron Angle and other Christian women candidates this year will save their people, Pastor Reed says, “And I believe God is using Christian women to save their own people, their own nation.”

That triggered in my mind the thought of another Esther—Esther White of Raynham, about 30 miles from Boston. I learned about her during my research for this article. A Baptist, she was thrown into prison because she refused to pay the eight pence tax imposed by Massachusetts for the support of the Congregational Church. She heroically refused to pay the tax and was in prison for nearly a year, sleeping on the floor, because one group of Christians gained influence over government and used that power against other Christians.