A Lesson in American Civics

By David Twersky

Published December 17, 2004, issue of December 17, 2004.
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If Bill O’Reilly doesn’t like America’s tradition separating church and state, he should move to Ireland.

Rutting for ratings, the host of Fox News’s “O’Reilly Factor” and talk radio’s “Radio Factor” has been “defending” Christmas against threats, real and imagined. Arguing over the claims of religion in the public domain represents a decent American tradition. So why all the fuss over the advice he offered to a Jewish listener who phoned in to O’Reilly’s radio show December 3 to complain about “Christmas going into schools”?

Now, this is a fairly common American Jewish — and atheist American and Muslim American and liberal Christian American — complaint. During this season, it often takes the form of litigation over the display of Nativity Scenes on municipal or state property. Add to it the long-standing feelings of O’Reilly’s Jewish caller, who admitted that he “grew up with a resentment because I felt that people were trying to convert me to Christianity.”

Rather than offer a defense for his position, Mr. O’Reilly replied that the state of affairs was a natural outgrowth of the fact that America is “a predominantly Christian nation.” “If you are really offended,” O’Reilly added, “you gotta go to Israel then.”

Not content with bullying his caller by implicitly questioning his bona fides as an American, O’Reilly said the caller’s concerns were “an affront to the majority,” which, he said, “can be insulted, too.”

The American discussion about religion and state begins with the shared premise that a church — and according to a wider reading, even religion itself — never receives government endorsement. Contained within the First Amendment to the Constitution, the establishment clause bars the kind of intertwining of government and church that dominated European countries at the founding of the American republic. There are ongoing disputes over whether to apply a narrow or broad construction to the establishment clause. Narrow constructors argue that the intent was to prevent the establishment of any particular church, as in the Baptists or Episcopalians, over all the others, and that there was no intent to ban government interaction, and even support, for all religions as long as no favoritism is shown.

Narrow constructors are at or near the helm in the Bush administration, which explains the president’s “compassionate conservative” policy allowing federal funds to flow to social programs run by religious organizations. Broad constructors argue that the intent was to bar government at all levels from embracing organized religion and that in practice, government support will always display favoritism.

O’Reilly could have led his listeners through this lesson in American civics. Instead, he chose to demagogue the issue, telling his caller, in effect, to love the status quo according to O’Reilly or leave the country.

The remark encouraging immigration to Israel was not only gratuitous but ironically off the mark. As anyone following events in the Jewish state knows, secular Jewish liberals living there chafe against pressures engendered by the state establishment of Orthodox Judaism.

The O’Reilly comment reached a wider audience when Media Matters, a liberal watch dog Web site, reported the exchange. That drew a December 8 letter to O’Reilly from Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, declaring the league “deeply offended.”

“American Jews are Americans,” the letter reads. “Jews and other religious minorities are part of America’s great tradition of religious freedom. The discomfort with proselytizing, or the intrusion of Christian teachings in public schools, is a very legitimate concern.”

Foxman concluded by characterizing the view that “religious minorities have no place in a Christian America and should leave,” as “extremist” and “unacceptable coming from a popular and respected media commentator.”

Never shy of mixing it up, O’Reilly returned to the subject during his December 9 radio show. He denounced Media Matters for America as “the most vile, despicable human beings in the country”; called the ADL “an extremist group that finds offense in pretty much everything,” and labeled Foxman “a nut.”

Bereft of constitutional theory or substantive rebuttal, O’Reilly resorts to name calling: “The most vile,” “an extremist group,” “a nut.”

And trust O’Reilly to unmask the secret agenda of the skeptics, atheists and nonemigrating Jews. What the “secular progressives” really want is to weaken Christianity so that they can pursue “gay marriage, partial birth abortion, euthanasia, legalized drugs, income redistribution through taxation and many other progressive visions.”

He also took refuge as the alleged aggrieved party, virtually a martyr for the Christian faith. “So, well you’re gettin’ the game here. You criticize anybody, you challenge anybody, then you are a bigot. And that’s the… that’s why nobody does it. That’s why nobody sticks up for Christmas except me.”

Thank God for Bill O’Reilly! Without his defense, Christmas might pass into an excuse for unnecessary consumption rather than a festive commemoration of the birth of the Christian messiah. But O’Reilly did not rail against the not-so-creeping commercialization of Christmas. Heaven forfend. Better to go after the minority.

Instead, O’Reilly went after the twin American traditions of tolerance for minorities and the constitutional principles that have made our political model the envy of the world, and our religious life as vibrant as ever.

O’Reilly apparently prefers Santa Claus to the establishment clause.

That’s his right. In America, however, we protect the rights and respect the sensibilities even of those like Chico Marx, who, in “A Night at the Opera,” refuses to fall for Groucho’s insistence that he sign a “sanity clause.”

“You can’t a fool a me,” Chico replied. “There ain’t no Sanity Clause.”

David Twersky is a contributing editor to the New York Sun.

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