Pastor Robert Jeffress strikes again

Pastor Robert Jeffress did an interview on CNN about prayers in government meetings.

He accuses Sandra Day O’Connor of making up with the “phony” endorsement test. The interviewer brings up the endorsement test, quoted below, as an argument that prayers in council meetings acts to endorse religion.

The Establishment Clause prohibits government from making adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person’s standing in the political community. Government can run afoul of that prohibition…[by] endorsement or disapproval of religion. Endorsement sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.

Jeffress responds:

Well I actually I pray that way in our city council meetings when I’m asked to pray, but remember the founding fathers said congress cannot establish a religion. Sandra Day O’Conner came up with this phony endorsement test. We’ve got to go back to what the founding fathers said. They talked about establishing a state religion.

This is a typical argument by fundamentalists about church state separation. It hinges on their own peculiar definitions of the words, “establishment” and “endorsement.” They argue that establishment is wrong but endorsement is just fine. However, they define establishment in the narrowest sense possible. In their opinion the only was we could establish a religion would be to pass a law which officially created a state church. So as long as congress doesn’t pass a law naming one denomination or another the state church they think no constitutional violation has occurred.

They also like to focus on the fact that the first amendment only mentions congress instead of including state and local governments, which flatly ignores the courts interpretation of the 14th amendment as extending many of the articles in the bill of rights to the states, including the establishment clause.

It should be obvious that I don’t find their position well reasoned. There is ample reason to believe that the government can do much to establish a state religion without passing a law explicitly naming one. Jeffress wants to treat the terms “establishment” and “endorsement” as if they are entirely different things, but they can actually be quite similar. Jeffress, based on his statements, wants Christianity to be publicly endorsed by the state because he knows it will give his beliefs an advantage in the marketplace of ideas. Jeffress can say he is ok with other religious groups getting their turns to pray because he knows Christianity is in the majority; he knows that other groups will rarely, if ever, get their “turns” in most areas of the country.

He continues by pointing out that the founding fathers were ok with prayers in government assemblies. Of course this isn’t entirely true. The founding fathers weren’t some hive mind, they were individuals with, sometimes, wildly diverging opinions. As such, some of them favored prayer in government and some didn’t. However, even if every single one of them had favored prayer in the government that wouldn’t necessitate that it was a good idea.

When Jeffress says we have to “go back to what the founding fathers said,” he talks about the founding fathers as if they were infallible, but the truth is that they got stuff wrong all the time. Thomas Jefferson believed slavery would fade away over time, and we all know how well that worked out. I would argue that, on church state separation, the founding fathers had the right idea, but simply failed to apply it very consistently. The Declaration of Independence said “all men are created equal,” yet few today would argue that we should not give women equal rights, so Jeffress insistence that not deviate even slightly from the intentions of the founding fathers is just absurd.

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