From an op-ed in the Tampa Tribune:
For the next six months, people on the roads of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties 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.
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 themselves.
The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Freedom has always stood for freedom: freedom FOR religion and freedom FROM state-sponsored religion. If you look at the topics on the top-left of its web site, you get a sense of the battles it has fought and continues to fight:
- Free Exercise of Religion
- Church Electioneering
- Religious Displays
- Civil Religion
- Government Funding
- Public Prayer
- Public Schools
- Political Discourse
So, when a set of pro-theocracy billboards sponsored by the Community Issues Council began sprouting up in Florida, attacking the separation of church and state, the BJC’s executive director Brent Walker spoke out. Here are some more quotes from his op-ed:
When those with an agenda cherry-pick – and completely make up – quotes from our founders, they do a disservice to all. There is a remarkable irony when a group claiming its support for historical accuracy fabricates a statement and attributes it to the nation’s first president. For example, one of the billboards 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 that 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.” 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 that “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.”
He gives a short lesson on separation of church and state, and why it is so important. Then the closer:
But putting intentional mischaracterizations, half-truths, and outright fabrications on display is patently irresponsible, undermining the very faith the billboard backers claim.
There was a time when almost all Baptists supported strong separation of church and state. I’m glad Brent Walker and the BJC still does.