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Jewish World Review August 30, 2000 / 29 Menachem-Av, 5760

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg
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The ADL's historical revisionism -- THE ANTI-DEFAMATION LEAGUE has called on Senator Joseph Lieberman to stop talking about G-d and religion. Lieberman, the Democratic nominee for vice president and the first Jew on a major party ticket, believes religion should have more of a role in politics.

"As a people, we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to G-d and G-d's purpose," he says on the stump. Lieberman approvingly quotes George Washington, who said that we must never entertain the idea "that morality can be maintained without religion."

The ADL says that this sort of rhetoric runs "contrary to the American ideal."

There they go again. There is perhaps no greater urban legend in American politics than the idea that America was founded on anti- or even non-religious principles. How many times has some talking head reminded Americans of the "high wall" found in the Constitution that guarantees the "separation of church and state"?

Well, the constitution makes no mention of walls, "high" or otherwise. Separation of church and state is a phrase found not in the constitution but in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association of Danbury, Conn., in which Jefferson assured the pastors that there would be no single official national religion.

The First Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." This meant that we would not follow the path of various European nations that had official state churches, like the Church of England.

If, according to the ADL, Lieberman's completely harmless comments run "contrary to the American ideal," where exactly is this ideal written down? It's not in the Constitution. It's not in the Declaration of Independence, which explains that we derive our inalienable rights from our "Creator." It's not in the motto -- found on all our currency -- "In God We Trust." And the Pledge of Allegiance has that inconvenient "under G-d" clause in it --- which was only added in 1954, by the way.

Sure, the ADL's "ideal" can be found in quite a few Supreme Court decisions, but the Supreme Court is our least democratic institution and we should be at least a little careful about finding our ideals in the writings of nine unelected lawyers. After all, the Supreme Court once believed that the Dred Scott decision, which declared no slave could be a U.S. citizen, was consonant with our national ideals.

Indeed, the court used to be on the other side of the argument. In 1892 it ruled, "Our laws and our institutions must necessarily be based upon and embody the teachings of the Redeemer of mankind." If that sounds like old news, it said much the same thing in 1952: "We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being." Two years later the liberal activist Justice Earl Warren noted, "I believe no one can read the history of our country without realizing that the Good Book and the spirit of the Savior have from the beginning been our guiding geniuses."

In fact, there is no major American document that seems to support the notion that the ideals of America are upheld by keeping religion out of public life. Meanwhile, the evidence to the contrary is so overwhelming it requires a Big Lie to refute it all.

Walk along the Mall in Washington and read the inscriptions on the various memorials; you certainly won't find the ADL's ideal there. Look at the Great Seal of the United States, which bares the motto "Annuit coeptis" which means "He (G-d) has favored our undertakings." President Washington and the early Congresses regularly called for days of national prayer and fasting during trying times.

No one wants to live in a theocracy. But the absolutists who would purge America of religious sentiment seem so willfully ignorant of the real role of religion in American life and in the world. In the 20th century, religion has for the most part been a check on barbarity and an engine of progress, not the other way around. The Soviets understood religion's threat to the state and tried to eradicate it. Hitler insisted that Germans must decide whether they were Christians or Germans. The ones who chose "Christian" weren't responsible for the Holocaust.

In America, the cause of civil rights -- which the ADL claims to be on -- was advanced only with the help of religion, not in spite of it. The abolitionists were moved by the faith that G-d was on their side. And let us not forget that the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. -- a man we are all taught represents the American ideal -- saw no conflict between his explicitly political movement and its religious underpinnings. After all, in his historic "I Have a Dream Speech," he dreams of the day "when all of G-d's children" will be able to sing "My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty."

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