For the next several months, people on the roads of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties in Florida will rumble past billboard ads making false claims and misleading assertions about our country’s history and commitment to religious freedom. One ad even fabricates a comment from the first president of the United States.
Recently, media reported on the billboard advertisements that use quotes from history to “portray a national need for Christian governance.”
Those behind the billboards refer to the separation of church and state as a “lie” and say our country’s Judeo-Christian foundation is “the reason that this country has prospered for 200-plus years.” The only lies being told are featured on the billboards.
Few would dispute the crucial role of religion in many of our founders’ lives. However, they were a mixed lot—some orthodox Christians, some Deists, nearly all scions of the Enlightenment—and more com-mitted to ensuring religious liberty for all than enshrining their own religion in our founding documents.
The separation of church and state is one of the reasons that, despite our religious passion and pluralism, we have been able to avoid the religious conflicts that have punctuated history and continue to plague much of the world today. In fact, as our founders wisely understood, the separation of the two is good for both.
When those with an agenda cherry-pick—and completely make up—quotes from our founders, they do a disservice to all.
Irony abounds when a group claiming its support for historical accuracy fabricates a statement and attributes it to the nation’s first president. For example, one billboard quotes President George Washington as saying, “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.”
As reported, the billboard organizers admit there is no proof Washington ever said this. Undoubtedly, Washington believed religion has a place in public life, but one must look at his other statements to understand his view of government’s role in religious matters.
In 1789, then-President Washington wrote a letter saying he would establish “barriers” against “spiritual tyranny” and “every species of religious persecution.” He also wrote that everyone should be protected in “worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience.”
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Taken together, Washington’s words show his recognition of religion’s benefits and his belief that a person’s preferences were a matter of individual choice in which the government should not interfere.
Moreover, James Madison—the father of our Constitution and arguably one of our most religious founders—observed, “The number, the industry and the morality of the Priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of church and state.”
The phrase “wall of separation” is not in the Constitution, but the sentiment surely is. It is simply a shorthand metaphor expressing a deeper truth: Religious liberty is best protected when the institutions of church and state are separated and neither tries to perform or interfere with the essential mission of the other.
Separation does not mean an infringement of the right of people of faith to speak forcefully in the public square. From bumper stickers to billboards, religious speech is commonplace.
Certainly, our freedoms allow anyone to purchase a billboard and put almost any statement on it. But putting intentional mischaracterizations, half-truths and outright fabrications on display is patently irresponsible, undermining the very faith the billboard backers claim.
Brent Walker is executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. This column appeared in the Tampa Tribune, was distributed by Associated Baptist Press and is reprinted with permission.