The Freethinkers’ Political Textbook – Mr. Jefferson, Reframe that Wall!

Part of a Series: The Freethinkers’ Political Textbook

See Also: Framing for FreethinkersGo for the Gut

Thanks to Rob De Vries, Georgie Torbet, Ben Donnelly, Emma Croft, Liz Croft, Fred Croft, and Pete Croft for discussing the ideas in this post with me. Thanks also to Michael De Dora, who provided a link to an essay on religious freedom by Austin Dacey and Colin Koproske.


  • Church-state separation is a central concern for Humanists, atheists, secularists, skeptics and freethinkers, uniting the movement.
  • The US public is ambivalent about church-state separation, but majorities do support the fundamental principle of church-state separation.
  • Despite widespread public support of secular principles, secularists continue to have to battle attempted infringements. This suggests we could frame our case better.
  • The current language of a “wall of separation”, while almost universally adopted, is not ideal from the standpoint of effective framing.
  • Constructing a new frame, based around the idea of “church-state protection“, would make it more likely that secularist appeals to the public will succeed.
  • A sample secularist narrative employing the new frame is offered.

Church-State Separation Unites the Freethinking Movement

In my introduction to Framing for Freethinkers, I described the importance of continually reevaluating the language, images and metaphors we use to describe our central concerns. In this post I apply that principle to one of the biggest passions of secularists: the separation between church and state. Perhaps no other issue unites the freethinking movement more readily. The American Humanist AssociationCenter for InquiryAmerican Atheists, and the Secular Coalition for America all fight for church-state separation. The newest of atheists, the most ardent Humanists, the freest freethinkers all support the idea that we should, as Christopher Hitchens put it – “build up that wall!”

Public Ambivalence

Americans are ambivalent about church-state separation. As the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported in 2006, “When asked which should have more influence over the laws of the country ­ the Bible or the will of the people, even when it conflicts with the Bible  most Americans (63%) say the people’s will should have more sway” (this includes majorities of conservative Republicans). A 2002 Pew poll discovered that Americans do not want churches directly endorsing political candidates: “70% of American adults believe that churches should not endorse politicians.” The American People do not want to live in a theocracy.

On the other hand, most Americans are not as concerned with some of the transgressions over the boundary between church and state as atheist activists. Most Americans support some displays of religiosity in public spaces, for instance: Pew reports that “In a 2005 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 83 percent of Americans said displays of Christmas symbols should be allowed on government property. In another 2005 Pew Research Center poll, 74 percent of Americans said they believe it is proper to display the Ten Commandments in government buildings.”

They also favor government funding for religious organizations, as long as they don’t proselytize. A 2009 poll found that “69% of Americans say they favor allowing churches and other houses of worship, along with other organizations, to apply for government funding to provide social services such as job training or drug treatment counseling. Just 25% oppose allowing faith-based groups to seek government funding to help the needy.” Perhaps surprisingly, support for such programs is higher among young people: “Eight-in-ten (80%) of those younger than age 30 support the idea of allowing houses of worship to apply for government funds to provide social services. That compares with a smaller majority of those age 65 and older (56%).” Intriguingly, though, support wavers depending on which sort of organization is seeking funding. While 68% favor the eligibility religious charities to receive government funds, only 39% favor extending the same right to Muslim mosques. Groups that proselytize, however, are broadly seen to be ineligible for government funding by the public: 63% oppose government funding for proselytizing groups.

As Lakoff and Westen both argue, the way for progressives to appeal to ambivalent constituencies is to reassert the progressive frames and narratives, not to “move to the middle”. The challenge for secularists, then, is to talk about the issue of church-state separation in a way which activates Americans’ concerns about the illegitimate influence of church on state and vice-versa, and inhibits their enthusiasm for faith-based programs and public displays of religion. That secularists continue to have to fight battles against attempted breaches of the wall of separation, even though  a majority of Americans believe, broadly, in the separation of church and state, suggests to me that we could more effectively frame our case, and that part of our problem might be the language that we use to talk about the issue.

The Frame We Activate Now

The frame secularists currently use to talk about church-state issues is best described as the “wall frame”. Hearkening back to Jefferson, secularists like Hitchens argue that we should build up the wall which separates church from state, and protect the state from undue religious inference. As Wikipedia informs us, the phrase “wall of separation” appears first in “Thomas Jefferson‘s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. The original text reads: “… I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.””

That this is the dominant frame is evident in the following screenshots from the website of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU):

Note the use of the “wall” metaphor (and let’s not forget it is a metaphor), and the reference to “church-state separation” (another metaphor, although more subtle).

Note how the problem is framed: religion threatens to “encroach” on U.S. Politics, and the implication is that we should resist this “encroachment”.

It’s not just AU who speaks like this: a recent email from the American Humanist Association read, in part, “We’re already seeing evidence of the dangerous mingling of church and state” (the use of the word “mingling”, which has a positive connotation and doesn’t seem at all “dangerous”, is a minor but telling error, but the underlying frame is the same). American Atheists and the Center for Inquiry also use similar language, as does the Freedom from Religion Foundation (although the FFRF tends to refer to the “Separation of state and church”, and important distinction I’ll touch on later):

Problems with this Frame

The “wall of separation” metaphor, with its accompanying “encroachment” frame, is one of the best-known and most widely used frames the secular movement has, so suggesting it might be problematic could seem heretical. However, as Lakoff and others point out, it is essentially to continually revisit the frames we use, to determine if they are still influencing our target audience in a way which is beneficial to our cause. In my view, the Wall frame has certain distinct disadvantages:

  • It conjures an image, for me, of a wall between two nations or groups who are being kept apart illegitimately, most notably the Berlin Wall, but also the Korean Demilitarized Zone (both images Jefferson didn’t have to worry about, showing how frames need to be reconsidered as time passes). That this is not just an idiosyncrasy of my mind is suggested by the quote which gives the title to this post: Christopher Hitchens’ saying, “Mr. Jefferson, build up that wall!” This is, of course, a paraphrase of President Reagan’s call regarding the Berlin wall, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” This is a distinctly problematic image: Hitchens’ call, though funny and smart, piggybacks on an existing, much more powerful frame which has the opposite associations to the one he truly wants to activate. He said “build up that wall”, and many immediately will think “tear down that wall!” Not good: tearing down the wall is precisely what we do not want our audience to think.
  • The frame is almost always articulated as a separation of the church from the state (the FFRF is a notable counter-example). In a country in which the vast majority of people are religious, and in which the population is ambivalent about church-state separation, it seems to me unwise to frame the discussion in this way when the same goals could be achieved by framing the message (at least sometimes) the other way round: the separation of state from church. Such a reframing is also accurate, in that it reflects Jefferson’s concern that this “separation” is to protect religious liberty as well as to protect the state from undue religious interference.
  • While “church” may have negative connotations for atheists, for most Christians in America it is a word with profound positive connotations. By framing the issue in terms of protecting the state from the church, we may reach atheists, but not the vast majority of people who might support a secular agenda, who are Christians with positive feelings towards religion and the church, and ambivalent feelings toward the separation of church and state. Many Christians, while they do not want to live in a theocracy, may object to the image of a “wall” “separating” their beloved church community from the nation they also love.

For these reasons, I think it wise to reframe the issue of church-state separation so that we activate more effective frames in potential supporters’ minds.

Reframing the Wall

Any reframing of the church-state issue must be based on an intelligent understanding of the issue. First, we must recognize that religious people are potentially the staunchest supporters of church-state separation. An article by Ed Brayton on argues that it’s not only atheists who support the “strict separation of church and state”, and points out that “The most staunch advocates of separation when it was being debated in the late 1700s were Baptist ministers like Isaac Backus and John Leland.” He’s right. The separation of church and state is designed to protect freedom of religion, not just protect the state from religion. This is reflected in the fact that many establishment clause cases are brought by religious people, not atheists. Therefore, we need to appeal to religious people if we are to protect the secular character of the USA.

Second, we should draw on the fact that the secular nature of the USA’s government is one of the distinguishing features of US history, and was supported by the Founding Fathers and the Constitution (both extremely powerful positive symbols for most Americans).  Brayton’s article gets close to recognizing this, but he doesn’t quite draw out the full implications of this realization: the separation between church and state is a proud part of America’s religious traditionThe story of how the Pilgrims came across the ocean to seek freedom from religious persecution is a fantastic narrative we can use to promote modern-day secularism. Secularism will therefore be framed as a patriotic tradition, as opposed to unpatriotic anti-secularists.

Third, we need to frame the debate so it is not seen in terms of “Atheists versus Christians” (a fight we will lose, and a significant problem with some of American Atheists more misguided lawsuits), but rather against lovers of freedom and theocrats. In episode #546 of the Atheist Experience, framing is discussed in a meandering and rather confused manner, but one valuable suggestion is made in this vein: the alternative to church-state separation is theocracy, a la the Taliban. One extraordinary benefit of this way of reframing the issue is that it co-opts traditionally right-wing frames for a progressive cause. Conservative Christians who might wish to oppose secularism will be forced to defend their similarity to theocratic despots like Osama bin Laden.

Fourth, as Humanists, we must be wary of framing the debate in such a way as to suggest that religious expression should have a privileged status above secular modes of expression. As Austin Dacey and Colin Koproske suggest, talking about “religious freedom” may suggest that expressions of religion should have “freedoms” over and above those enjoyed by secular institutions or individuals. Therefore, it might be wise to talk about “freedom of conscience” rather than “freedom of religion” (the frame the authors suggest – “equal freedom” – seems to me too non-specific to be a good way of framing an appeal such as ours. Thanks to Michael De Dora for the link to this essay).

Fifth, we need to find metaphors that are more universally positive than the wall metaphor, and which don’t give rise to negative mental images.

Some ideas, then, for reframing the discussion:

  • We should talk, instead of church-state “separation”, about mutual protection of church and state. So, church-state protection, not church-state separation.
  • This might lead us to talk about a “protective barrier” between church and state, instead of a “wall”. This gives a more direct sense of mutual benefit, and doesn’t so readily bring up the vision of the Berlin Wall (the fact that the image it brings to my mind most readily is a condom may be a plus or a minus – I can’t think of better phrasing!).
  • When talking about the dangers of breaching this defensive barrier, stress the dangers to the church, at least to the same extent as the dangers to the state. Tell (true) horror stories of states in which the government controls individual expression of religion to make this stick. China provides many gruesome examples of genuine oppression of Christians by the government. These stories could powerfully galvanize Christians in this country to support church-state protection efforts.
  • Paint the picture of government officials controlling what happens in the pews. This image is potentially emotionally compelling for religious people, and it brings into focus the very real dangers of failing to protect church and state effectively.
  • While US Christians tend to support church-state protection violations such as displays of the Ten Commandments in courtrooms, they are far more concerned if those violations involve religions other than Christianity. Sensitively asking how Christians would feel were explicitly atheistic or Islamic expressions of belief were displayed in courtrooms might bring home the necessity of true church-state protection. Sensitivity is essential because the use of minority religions to make this point could slip into stereotyping and derogation.
  • Use everyday metaphors that emphasize how distinction between church and state benefits both. Examples include “good fences make good neighbors”, a metaphor which has a more positive cast than “wall of separation”.
  • Stress that church-state protection is a traditional, patriotic value, linked to the Constitution and the Founders. The FFRF does this to some degree in the image above, stressing that it is “protecting the constitutional principle of separation of church and state” (emphasis added). Harnessing the story of the pilgrims might be an evocative way to make this point.

Weaving together these principles, here’s a stab at a new narrative defending the secular nature of the USA (I’ve drawn some of this together from previous speeches of mine):

In America, we’re all part of a remarkable experiment—a country in which people can believe what they choose, can pursue their own idea of happiness, and will not be excluded because of their beliefs. That’s why the pilgrims boarded the Mayflower and made the long, dangerous journey to these shores, landing on Plymouth Rock. The Founders had seen for themselves the danger of Kings and Lords telling the people what they could and couldn’t believe, and in the New World, they wanted priests in the pulpits, not government bureaucrats. They also wanted their government to be free from the influence of religious leaders who do not represent the people democratically. That’s why the founders began the proud American tradition of secularism, writing in the Constitution a protective barrier to ensure that both church and state remained free. But today, that barrier is under attack by people who want to tell you which God to worship, and how to practice your faith. These people want to overturn the American tradition of secularism and turn America into a theocracy like Iran. They want courtrooms to display religious messages and for kids to be forced to pray, even if the prayer does not respect their religion or that of their parents. Patriotic secularists understand that good fences make good neighbors, and that the protective barrier between church and state is the best way to protect freedom of conscience for the American people, and the democratic tradition of our government.

This narrative is a sketch, and could be, I’m sure, significantly improved. But I’d be willing to wager that an appeal couched in the sort of language explored here would be more effective in persuading religious Americans to support secularism than appeals using the “wall of separation” and “encroachment” frames. It also has the benefit of being more emotionally compelling, reasonably easy to remember, and, most important of all, true. You can view a speech in which I try to use some of these reframing tactics below:

Are any of the major organizations willing to take up this new frame and tell me how it goes?



About James Croft

James Croft is the Research and Education Fellow at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, and has been working on the Humanist Community Project since its inception. He is a Cambridge and Harvard Graduate, and is currently studying for his Doctorate in the philosophy of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist.

12 comments on “The Freethinkers’ Political Textbook – Mr. Jefferson, Reframe that Wall!

  1. You’re on the mark again but we need mainstream outlets to get this reframed message to those outside of the liberal, secular community. We need an Oprah or Brian Williams to champion this cause to a potentially receptive middle that is constantly bombarded by Christianist historical distortions. Any thoughts?

    BTW, your video demonstrates that our movement’s gain is the Anglican pulpit’s loss.

    • Thanks Rob – I agree that we desperately need mainstream media outlets to make the case more effectively. Sadly I don’t have many ideas at present. I think it would be a big step to get major movement organizations to have a coordinated language strategy on this issue.

      Thanks for your comments on the video – I was once told by a careers adviser that I should be a priest!

  2. Wait, is this the discussion where I got really upset and ran away to tell mum on you? Lol! I got a credit for that! Awesome :D Great post by the way, glad I could help :P

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