Finding the Founders

Peter talks with historian David Sehat about the ways liberals and conservatives look to the Founders to bolster their arguments about religious freedom in America, and how both sides get it wrong.

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BRIAN: Welcome to the show and thanks for tuning in. I’m Brian Balogh. And I’m here with Peter Onuf.

PETER: Hey there, Brian.

BRIAN: And Ed Ayers is with us.

ED: Well, hello, gentlemen.

BRIAN: Let’s begin today with a holiday fable.

PETER: For decades, if you visited the town of Leesburg, Virginia, in December, you would see a nativity scene on the courthouse lawn right downtown.

ED: The creche featured full-sized statues of the Virgin Mary, the baby Jesus, and the three wise men gathered around the manger. It was a beloved tradition, says Washington Post reporter, Caitlin Gibson.

CAITLIN GIBSON: Leesburg is a town with a deep sense of history and tradition. And people who have lived here for decades or even generations are accustomed to things being done a certain way. And change is hard.

ED: In 2009, Loudon County, where Leesburg is the county seat, announced that it was ending the holiday display. And many Leesburg residents were outraged.

FEMALE SPEAKER: It’s been a decades long tradition of a nativity scene and tree at the courthouse grounds, which fired up the debate over separation of church and state and freedom of speech.

PETER: Soon, hundreds of county residents began lobbying to keep the creche. Some showed up at county board meetings wearing Santa hats. But the hubbub also drew in area residents who were not as fond of the traditional creche.

CAITLIN GIBSON: And because Loudon is a growing community, there is increasingly diverse and eclectic group of people with a range of different opinions. And the American Atheists in particular, they’re very serious about what they’re trying to convey. And they don’t think there should be a county-sponsored religious display period.

ED: As a compromise, Leesburg decided to issue 10 permits on a first come, first serve basis to anybody, secular or religious, who wanted a display. And here’s where the story takes to turn.

PETER: The organization American Atheists thought that religious displays had no place on government property. So they tried to get all 10 permits. That way there wouldn’t be any display on the courthouse lawn– no creche, no menorah, nothing at all. But they only got 7 of the 10. So instead, they decided to set up some, well, creative displays.

CAITLIN GIBSON: I believe the first display to cause a bit of a stir was a mannequin Luke Skywalker.

ED: The next year, there was a nativity scene in which a Flying Spaghetti Monster hovered over the baby Jesus. The display read, touched by an angel hair.

CAITLIN GIBSON: Things really hit a fever pitch in 2011, when a skeleton Santa Claus was mounted on a cross and displayed on the lawn. And that had been intended to convey society’s obsession with consumerism. But it really upset passing people on the sidewalk.

PETER: It actually wasn’t the atheists who put up the crucified Santa. But complaints poured in anyway. So Loudon County decided to ditch the permit system and revert to a county-sponsored nativity scene. But this time, they included some nods to non-Christians, like a menorah, reindeer, and a healthy non-crucified Santa.

ED: The new display satisfied the traditionalists, since it brought back the beloved creche. But as Leesburg becomes bigger and more diverse, there are more and more people in the town who just don’t want a county-sponsored display at all.

CAITLIN GIBSON: They are members of this community now. And I think that they also feel like a want the courthouse that’s at the center of this historic town to reflect their sense of what’s right as well.

ED: This year, creche, menorah, and Santa are already ensconced on the Leesburg courthouse lawn. But Caitlin Gibson says that’s probably not a permanent resolution.

CAITLIN GIBSON: I am keeping an eye on it, yes. I definitely am.

PETER: Leesburg, of course, is just one of many American towns trying to figure out how to navigate the holiday season without endorsing any one religion.

ED: And these controversies extend well beyond the annual creche versus menorah debate. This fall, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a potentially landmark case from a small town in New York. The question at stake, is it constitutional to open town meetings with a Christian prayer?

PETER: So today on the show, the long, uneasy, and still unsettled history of church and state in America. The first amendment says that Congress can neither establish a state religion nor prohibit Americans from practicing their own religions. But what does it mean to establish a religion or to practice a religion? How have those meanings changed over the centuries? And what counts as a religion anyway?