A Debate on Religious Freedom

Norman Lear Selected Writings

A Debate on Religious Freedom

From Harper’s magazine, October, 1984

From an exchange of letters between Norman Lear and Ronald Reagan.  In 1980 Lear, the writer and television producer, founded People for the American Way, a citizens’ group concerned about First Amendment issues.

May 7 1984

Dear Mr. President:
I am deeply troubled by what seems to be an endorsement of the so-called Christian Nation movement in many of your recent speeches.  While I fully respect (and would fight to protect) your right to whatever spiritual and religious beliefs you prefer, I am concerned that you not use the office of the presidency as Evangelist in Chief or to further the notion that any particular group of Americans is to be accorded special standing because it practices any religion.

To me, it is no coincidence that the First Amendment to the Constitution contains both the guarantee of free speech and the guarantee of separation of church and state.  History shows that they are inextricably linked.

Without the separation of church and state, free, spirited public debate is impossible.  The mutual respect that is essential to democratic debate is lost when a president’s opinions on public policy are used as some sort of perverse test of a citizen’s standing with the Almighty.

While I know that you cannot control the statements of all your supporters, millions of Americans would be greatly relieved if you would clarify that you do not officially embrace the Christian Nation movement; that you do riot intend to use the office of the president to favor a particular religious dogma; and that you intend instead to preserve the presidency as an office for all the people, believers and non-believers alike.

Thank you for your attention.  The country looks forward to hearing from you.

Norman Lear

May 22, 1984

Dear Norman:
I appreciate your writing (May 7) and giving me a chance to set some things straight.  First let me say that until I read your letter I was unaware of any Christian Nation movement, and I certainly do not support the notion that any group of citizens is to be accorded special standing “because it practices any religion.”

I do believe the First Amendment is being somewhat distorted or misinterpreted by some who would, by government decree, make freedom of religion into freedom from religion.  The First Amendment plainly ensures that in this nation there shall be no official state church.  The amendment says the government shall not establish religion, but it also just as plainly says the government shall not interfere in the practice of religion.

But isn’t the government doing the latter when it decrees that a child cannot ask a blessing before lunch in the school cafeteria—particularly when we remember that the child is compelled by law to attend school?

It is true I’ve addressed a number of religious groups—always by their invitation.  Some have been Protestant, some Catholic, some Jewish.  Some have been conferences or conventions of representatives of all religions.  Usually I’ve expressed my views on matters ranging from the right of a child to pray in school—if the child wants to do this—to tuition tax credits to correct the injustice of a parent supporting two school systems while using only one, to my belief that abortion on demand is the taking of a human life unless and until someone can prove that an unborn child is not a living being.

Norman, maybe we’re coming to the same concern from opposite viewpoints, namely the threat to individual freedom.  I believe that Madalyn  Murray O’Hair, who brought about the anti-school-prayer decision, was imposing her atheism on those of us who believe in God.  The goal of our nation must always be [to achieve] the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with an orderly society.

Now, having said this, let me also say that I approve of the references to God in the Declaration of Independence and of the inscription “In God We Trust” on our coins and engraved on the wall of the Capitol.  I believe history shows that every great civilization that has ended up in history’s dustbin did so after forsaking its god or gods.  At the same time, I believe in every American’s right to worship whatever god or gods he or she chooses, or no god at all.  I also believe, however, that the God of Moses and his Son admonished us to go into the world and spread their word.  But those who hear must decide for themselves whether to accept that word.

Well, I’ve gone on long enough, but let me just close by saying that I believe I have a responsibility to speak out for decency and the basic moralities without which there can be no civilization or personal freedom.

Ronald Reagan

June 15, 1984

My Dear Mr. President:
Thank you for taking time to answer my recent letter.  Your thoughtful response provoked a few concerns that I would like to pursue further.

I was surprised that you were unaware of the Christian Nation movement, since so many of the fundamentalist religious leaders to whom you have granted special attention have made a “Christian America” the centerpiece of their political activity.  I refer primarily to Paul Weyrich and the Reverends Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Robison, and Jimmy Swaggart.

Were you aware, for example, that Rev.  Robertson stated on one of his broadcasts:

The Constitution of the United States is a marvelous document for self-government by Christian people.  But the minute you turn the document into the hands of non-Christian people and atheistic people they can use it to destroy the very foundation of our society.  And that’s what’s been happening.

Rev.  Falwell has said:

The idea that religion and politics don’t mix was invented by the Devil to keep Christians from running their own country.

I feel compelled to underscore this alarming kind of rhetoric because some senior staff members at the White House have apparently picked up this theme of contempt for non-fundamentalists.  Mr. Bob Sweet of your staff described your lobbying effort for government-mandated prayer readings as:

…an indication of what can be done if the Christian people in America join together on a particular issue.  I believe that this is a test run.

And your liaison for religious affairs, Carolyn Sundseth called for “all saved Christians” to pray that her fellow White House staffers “get saved or get out” of government.

Forgive me for quoting at such length, Mr. President.  Because you care deeply about individual freedoms, I knew you would be troubled by these examples of religious intolerance—and their association with your presidency.

The issue is not, as you suggest, between atheists and believers.  It is the imposition of a creed on citizens through the powers and public role of the government—whether that creed be Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, or atheism.  It is not the substance of what is imposed—but the imposition itself—that is objectionable to a free people.

Mr. President, without freedom from religion we would have no freedom of religion.  Because the very essence of freedom is the ability to say yes or no.  As Martin Luther said, man has only one freedom: to say no to God.  Without the freedom to say no, there is no freedom to say yes.  There is no freedom.

Mr. President, as I think you know, it is not only atheists who oppose government-supervised school prayer.  While atheists may harbor hostility toward the whole notion of God, the United Methodist Church, the American Baptist Churches in the USA, the United Church of Christ, and the American Jewish Congress, among others, bear no such hostility.  Yet they do oppose government interference with their religious practices.

The First Amendment does not simply prohibit the establishment of an official state church, as we both agree.  It means that the government cannot prefer one religion over another in its actions, or even prefer religion.  As James Madison wrote in 1785, “the same authority which would establish Christianity in exclusion of all other religions could establish any particular sect of Christians in exclusion of all other sects.”

I agree with you that the word “God” has a place on our coins.  But I also believe it is no accident that our coins, which bear the inscription “In God We Trust,” make another affirmation on the reverse side: “E Pluribus Unum”— “Out of Many, One.”  Our strength as a nation stems from our respect for diversity.  This principle is diminished when the presidency becomes the pulpit for only one of those religious traditions, however sincere its adherents.

It is not a solution for the federal government to wash its hands of the matter and let local communities decide which religious tradition should prevail—as your recent school prayer amendment would have done.  As you promised upon taking the oath of office, the president must “preserve, protect, and defend” the Constitution and the individual freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights for all citizens.  The spirit of liberty is not advanced by abdicating that role with respect to school prayer.

Until you mentioned it in your letter, Mr. President, I had never heard that any branch or level of government in our nation had decreed that a child cannot ask a blessing before lunch in the school cafeteria.  Mr. President, I would appreciate knowing more about this.  I would dedicate myself to protecting the right of that child to ask that blessing.

Please understand that the concerns I express in this letter are not directed at your efforts to speak out for decency; that is your duty as President.  Nor are the concerns I express directed at your testimony of religious faith; that is your right as a free American citizen.

What alarms me is your assumption of a governmental role as Evangelist in Chief.  By this I mean your use of the ceremonial and official powers of the presidency to validate one set of religious beliefs over another.  In so doing, you say to those Americans who do not share your particular religious beliefs that they are second-class citizens.  As you said in a recent newspaper interview: “We have respected every other religion.  They’re free to practice in our country…”

Mr. President, there are no “other” religions in “our” country.  America belongs to all its citizens, no matter what their religion.  No faith has a special patrimony in the eyes of the Constitution.

In that vein, please do not denounce your political opponents by the terms of your faith—and thereby imply that they are sinful.  Call them mistaken if you must, but do not question their religious integrity.

I share your conviction that the “basic moralities” of civilization should be promoted.  Sectarian beliefs should have no government sanction, however.  Your record so far disappoints many of us who care deeply about religious liberty for all citizens.  We would welcome a more forthright reassurance that the presidency does not play favorites with respect to America’s religions.

Norman Lear

June 25, 1984

Dear Norman:
I won’t attempt to respond to the quotes you listed in your letter since I don’t know the context in which they were uttered.  It does seem to me, though, that people of any persuasion urging their associates to participate in political activity is pretty much what democracy is all about.  And I say this even though I’m sure I would disagree with the course they might be suggesting we follow.

But in mentioning one form of such activity, you referred to me as lobbying for government-mandated prayer readings.  That is how the school prayer amendment was defeated.  Its opponents made the argument that we were advocating mandated prayer.  We were doing nothing of the kind; to the contrary, we opposed mandated prayer.  We wanted nothing more than recognition that the Constitution does not forbid children from praying in school if they so desire.

Norman, my father moved around a lot in search of better opportunities.  As a result, I attended six different schools in the eight years of elementary school.  There was not one in which there was prescribed prayer, yet we knew we could pray if we wanted to.  You asked about the case I mentioned of a child not being allowed to say grace in the school cafeteria.  Without looking it up, I believe that the locale was New York and that it was children, not child.  The school authorities thought they were required to forbid the practice.  Evidently some parents made a case of it, and the courts upheld the school authorities.

I am not using this office as a pulpit for one religion over all others, but I do subscribe to George Washington’s remark regarding high moral standards, decency, etc. and their importance to civilization.  And I subscribe to his conclusion that to think we can have these without religion as a base is to ask for the impossible.

Obviously, when I’m addressing an audience that shares my own religious beliefs—indeed, a religious group—I see nothing wrong with talking of our mutual interests.  I can recall no instance where I have ever tried to proselytize others or impose my beliefs on those of other faiths.  Madalyn Murray O’Hair demanded and got a denial of anyone’s right to pray in a school.  I simply ask that children be allowed to pray if they so desire—and that prayer can be to the God of Moses, the Man of Galilee, Allah, Buddha, or any others.

I said I would not take up the quotes of the clergy you brought to my attention, but isn’t it possible those quotes were defensive rather than aggressive?  Possibly they were in response to such statements as this one, made in the Humanist by Paul Kurtz: “Humanism cannot in any fair sense of the word apply to one who still believes in God as the source and creator of the universe.  Christian Humanism would be possible only for those who are willing to admit that they are Atheistic Humanists.  It surely does not apply to God-intoxicated believers.”

Then there is the statement by John J. Dunphy (same magazine) that the battle for humankind’s future will be waged and won in the public school classroom and that the new faith of humanism will replace the “rotting corpse of Christianity.”

Believing that both of us are arguing for individual liberty, I have to call to your attention that it is humanist doctrine that “we must relinquish some of our liberties and that religious values are overridden by what government determines is the general welfare or in the public interest.”

Well, I’ve gone on too long.  It was good to hear from you.


July 19, 1984

My Dear Mr. President:
Although this is not what we originally began to discuss, please forgive one final attempt by me to clarify why so many Americans find prayer reading in the public schools so contrary to the spirit of religious liberty.

Our fundamental disagreement, it seems to me, centers on what it means for the government to “mandate” religious observances in the schools.  You suggest that a prayer is mandated only if a child is forced to participate in the worship.  But simply because a student can decline to participate does not make it “voluntary.”

The very selection of an “official” prayer or prayers relegates all other beliefs, including the belief in no God, to a second-class status.  That is hardly consistent with the Constitution’s promise of religious liberty for all.  No one “voluntarily” chooses second-class citizenship.  I hope you will agree with me: there are no “other” religions in America; all are equal in the eyes of the Constitution.  No majoritarian religious group has the right to use the instruments of government to promote its creed, especially when it may offend the religious consciences of other American citizens.

Mr. President, I agree with you that the Constitution does not forbid children from praying in school if they so desire.  As a man of great faith, you know that no government has the power to banish God Almighty from the schools or anyplace else.  God is everywhere, and abides in the hearts of men and women whenever and wherever they pray.  But supplication to the Lord is made in many different ways, and it is the government’s duty to respect that.

I took the trouble to investigate the case of children in New York who were allegedly forbidden from asking a blessing in the school cafeteria before lunch.  Twenty-one years ago, the Second Circuit Court in Stein v. Oshinsky did not prohibit any child from asking a blessing in the school cafeteria; it prohibited recited prayers in classrooms by groups of children.  Each of those children remained free to pray individually before, during, and after classes, and most assuredly in the school cafeteria.  Their religious liberty lives on!  And so does the liberty of their fellow students.  There is simply no law or court decision that prevents any student this very day from praying anytime, anyplace he or she wishes.

If the clergy I cited in my last letter were responding to such “humanists” as Paul Kurtz and others, it strikes me as a stunning non sequitur.  The reverends are leaders of a major religious and political movement that reaches 20 million followers every week; Mr. Kurtz and his colleagues at the Humanist magazine speak bimonthly to a constituency of 15,000.  Could it be that Revs. Falwell et al. prefer to debate straw men instead of their brethren in mainstream religious groups?  It is those mainstream religious groups that disagree so vigorously with any effort to amend the First Amendment to encourage government religious ritual.

Our correspondence on this issue of religious liberty has been enlightening but, alas, not encouraging.  Perhaps we must simply agree to disagree.  Just as our Constitution protects political differences of opinion, may it continue to safeguard our rich diversity of faiths as well.

Norman Lear

Norman Lear is founding chairman of People for the American Way.  This is adapted from his recent correspondence with President Reagan. 

Humanism Abused
From Harper’s magazine, January, 1985

We appreciate your publication of the lively exchange between President Reagan and Norman Lear, “A Debate on Religious Freedom” [Harper’s, October].  However we would like to speak for ourselves in correcting misinformation given by Mr. Reagan concerning quotations from the Humanist.

In his letter of June 25, 1984, Mr. Reagan made an error (that Mr. Lear failed to correct) in attributing a quote by Paul Kurtz to the Humanist magazine.  Mistakenly citing Paul Kurtz as editor of the Humanist, a position he has not held since 1978, Mr. Reagan presented a quote from Dr. Kurtz (in which he stated that humanism and a belief in God were mutually exclusive) that came from an article printed back in 1972 in Question 5 (a now defunct publication).  The article was never printed in the Humanist.  For the record, it has never been the policy of the American Humanist Association to reject Christian, Jewish, or other types of humanists.

Mr. Reagan followed this with a quote from John J. Dunphy—a quote that has been widely misused by the religious right in its efforts to smear humanism.   If Ronald Reagan really were a reader of the Humanist, he would have known two things.  First, he would have been aware of the disclaimer that appears on the inside cover of every issue of the Humanist, which reads: “In pursuit of free and open dialogue, authors air opinions that may not necessarily reflect those of the editors.”  Second, he would have known that the July/August 1983 issue of the Humanist carried the following policy statement in opposition to Dunphy’s views:

…one paragraph out of one of ten essays printed in one issue of the Humanist by an author who is not an elected officer of any humanist organization proves only that one lone humanist wants to turn classrooms into arenas of conflict between Christianity and humanism.  No responsible humanist organization has ever taken such a position….  Dunphy’s suggestion—taken literally—is, in its way, as extreme and irresponsible as the radical right view that public schools should promote a fundamentalist outlook.

Dunphy’s personal views, then, are not representative of the position of the American Humanist Association or of the Humanist magazine.

We would ask of our Chief Executive that he be more informed about whom he is attacking, instead of taking as his advisers such anti-humanists as Jerry Falwell and Jimmy Swaggart, who are using the humanist minority (“secular humanism”) as an effective political whipping boy.

Frederick Edwards Amherst, N.Y.
Frederick Edwards is executive director
of the American Humanist Association.