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The joining of church and state

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America's founding fathers would not have been impressed with the holy alliance of Pat Robertson and Rudy Giuliani

Observers were shocked when evangelical Christian Pat Robertson, left, last week endorsed the presidential bid of Rudolph Giuliani, who has supported abortion and gay rights.

NEW YORK - Legendary lawyer and scholar Alan Dershowitz laughs when I mention Rudy Giuliani and Pat Robertson.

Rudy Giuliani is a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination because the former mayor of New York City was calm and resolute when the planes hit that awful morning in September, 2001. Pat Robertson is a leading televangelist because he calmly and resolutely promotes religious quackery, such as his infamous observation that 9/11 was God's punishment for abortion and gay rights.

So reporters were stunned when Giuliani and Robertson stood together at a podium last week to announce that the preacher was endorsing the presidential bid of a man who has supported abortion and gay rights, and that the hero of 9/11 would gratefully accept this honour from the man who said New York got what it deserved. Both men grinned like they'd just robbed a bank.

"That's the best thing that's happened in a long time. It exposes the cynicism of both of them," Dershowitz says. "The fact is, Robertson is endorsing Giuliani not because of his religion but despite it, so it makes it very clear that Pat Robertson's religion is really politics. His Jesus packs heat, cuts taxes and hates immigrants. It's not the Jesus of the New Testament."

For Dershowitz, American politics isn't offering much to celebrate these days. Aside from the obvious problems of war and all the rest, the Harvard law professor and civil libertarian sees the separation of church and state steadily eroding. And that means the very foundation of the United States is weakening.

Like most jurisdictions at the time, the American colonies linked civil rights and religion. A full citizen was someone who professed the correct faith. Those who did not may have been tolerated to one extent or another, but they were not equals.

The Founding Fathers junked that. The American Constitution "was the first constitution in history to make no mention of God. The only reference to religion is a negative one," Dershowitz notes. It appears in Article Six: "No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

Formally, that still holds. In reality, it's a dead letter. "Today, we have a religious test for office," says Dershowitz. "It is inconceivable that an atheist, an agnostic or a skeptic could run for office." Polls show half of Americans wouldn't vote for a qualified atheist. Even one-third of self-described liberals feel a lack of religious belief is an automatic disqualification for public office.

In this new environment, presidential candidates routinely tell impassioned stories about how they found Jesus and how faith shapes their thinking. Rudy Giuliani scarcely mentioned God at all when he was mayor of New York but now he can't stop talking about how important religion is to him. Saying nothing is not an option. Questions about faith have become standard in debates and every politician knows that the only acceptable answer is to gush. Barack Obama did. So did Hillary Clinton. Even Howard Dean, the quintessential secular liberal, pandered shamelessly -- and was humiliated when he claimed his favourite book in the New Testament is Job.

This is an astonishing change in a country which has always been religious but where, until a generation ago, faith was considered a private matter. "I believe that the Democrats and Republicans are equally guilty," Dershowitz says. "They all wear their religion on their sleeve and the appropriate place for religion is not in politics."

That may seem like a modern, liberal view, but Dershowitz insists it's very old and quintessentially American. "It was the view of the founding generation. The 1800 election was all about that. Thomas Jefferson ran and refused to disclose his religious beliefs. He refused to deny he was an atheist, though he was not. He was a deist. And he said I'm just not going to talk about my religion. Sorry. And Adams ran against him on a campaign of Adams and God, Jefferson and no God. And Jefferson won."

I spoke to Dershowitz a block away from St. Paul's chapel in New York, the old stone church where George Washington went to pray after being inaugurated the first president. Conservatives point to symbols like that to make the case that the United States was a Christian nation at its foundation and so it should remain, but Dershowitz, who has written three books on the subject, is having none of that.

Washington prayed after the inauguration, he says, because almost everyone at the time was protestant and "he was a politician." It would have been odd not to. "But he typically drove his wife to church in a horse and buggy and his wife went to church while he stayed outside. He was not a church-going person. And as president, he clearly espoused a kind of civic religion."

In the late 18th century, atheism was almost unknown but rising excitement about science and rationalism led intellectuals to reject organized religion. Instead, they embraced what was known as deism. The supernatural is an illegitimate explanation for anything within the universe, the deists argued, but still there must be a God. After all, we see design all around us. How can there be design without a designer?

And so deists concluded there is a God who created existence but who, like a clockmaker, does not interfere in the operations of his creation once he has set it in motion.

Deism was devastated by Charles Darwin. With evolution, it was possible to have design without a designer and so the deists' logic collapsed and modern atheism was born.
But for the men who founded the United States, that lay in the future. Intellectual life at the time was dominated by deism and those beliefs were reflected in the institutions they created, notably the "godless Constitution."

Seeking to portray a very different reality, religious conservatives today ignore the Constitution and focus instead on the Declaration of Independence, which is shot through with references to God. That's the real founding document, they say, and it shows the United States was a Christian nation from the beginning.

Wrong, Dershowitz responds. Thomas Jefferson wrote the declaration and Jefferson actually ridiculed Christianity. The New Testament, Jefferson wrote, was the product of "very inferior minds" and consisted of "so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism and imposture" that it could be characterized as "dung." Jesus was a wonderful teacher in Jefferson's eyes, but nothing more. He even went through the Bible with a pair of scissors, taking out all the supernatural nonsense.

When conservatives point to the declaration and cite the references to God, "they make an easy transition from God to the God of the Bible, from God to Jesus, from God to Jehovah," Dershowitz says. "And that's precisely what the framers intended to avoid. The God of the declaration of Independence is the God that got Spinoza excommunicated from Judaism in Amsterdam. It was the God of nature. In fact, the God of nature is explicitly referred to in the Declaration of Independence. There is no reference to the God of the Bible, to an intervening God. There is no reference whatsoever to Jesus, to Jewish traditions, to Christian traditions, none at all. The reference is to a very different type of God. It's Aristotle's clockmaking God, the deist God, the God who had nothing to do with the Bible. Jefferson was as clear as could be."

American political culture is unique in the reverence it has for the beliefs and intentions of the (always capitalized) Founding Fathers, and yet religion has become so dominant in American politics that probably the greatest Founding Father could not be elected president today. "Jefferson didn't do what Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani and everybody else is doing," Dershowitz says. "He must be turning over in his grave."

Dan Gardner Writes Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.



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