Now’s when we really need Jefferson: Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton

Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton addressed the convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 29, 2010 via video.

Good evening and welcome to Wisconsin. We’re delighted you decided to hold your national convention here in Madison. I have to say that my decision to welcome you caused a bit of a stir, and we’ve received many phone calls and e-mails. This is the response that I gave to every one of them:

“First let me provide context. Whenever I am asked to provide an official welcome for national conferences held in our state, whether it’s the Society of Plastic Industries or the American Legion or the Freedom From Religion Foundation, I do my best to accommodate the group if possible.”

Then I told them, “Both of my grandfathers were ministers, Protestant ministers, one from a family of early settlers in this country and the other a 20th century immigrant from Norway. My father served as an Air Force pilot in World War II, flying 34 missions over Nazi Germany, only 19 years old as he began his service. The freedom of expression of my grandfathers’ faith and the constitutional protection that ensured that government would not encroach on their ministry allowed them to answer their calling to the fullest, and my father repeatedly risked his life to preserve the integrity of this democracy where a clear line between church and state is maintained. All of them were patriots in the most profound ways, and I work as lieutenant governor to honor their legacy.” 

That satisfied some of them, not all of them.

But let me begin by saying that I’m proud to be with you even if it’s only virtually in some sense. But I decided that I would be of greater use in Colorado this weekend as a counte weight to U.S. Senate candidate, Ken Buck, who in his own words said he strongly disagrees with the concept of the separation of church and state. And coincidentally, I will be engaged in the celebration of pagan Halloween traditions with my grandchildren.

In these days before the election, we are awash in novel interpretations of the U.S. Constitution, and I ask where is Thomas Jefferson when we need him? He was an articulate believer that no good comes to the commonwealth if government can judge prohibited conduct, tax policy or social programs based on religion. Jefferson would also remind us of Article VI of the Constitution that prohibits a religious test for office, and interestingly, not one of the six first U.S. presidents was an orthodox Christian. 

Instead, as in 1800 when Jefferson was condemned for being “an atheist in religion and a fanatic in politics,” religion today is used too often as a weapon to bludgeon good people seeking the opportunity to serve their country in elected office. I maintain that my faith, or lack of, as an elected official is not a topic for debate. Politics is about the dignity of daily life, about government’s necessary role in ensuring the essential civil and human rights that define a free people and that government exists to provide a clear framework for ethical behavior.

I am frustrated by the unearned self-righteousness of certain elements of the press and other political figures who, with the deepest of cynicism, use peoples’ faith as a political football to secure their own narrow, special interests. 

We need to ask different questions about those who would lead our state and nation. We must ask are they committed to contributing to a healthy democracy and to observing the principles that will sustain it? We need them to promise intellectual honesty and to debate of the issues of the day. And we should expect a fundamental understanding of the constitutional framework within which we all operate. 

Despite U.S. Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell’s confusion, the Constitution is clear on the separation of church and state. I have always been profoundly grateful to FFRF for so thoughtfully and thoroughly policing the border that separates church and state.

A press person asked me if I would be here if I were running for office this year, and I answered that I would like to think so. Were it not now an absolute physical necessity for me to be with my grandchildren, I would be here personally to greet you and welcome you to Wisconsin.

I hope you have a very productive conference. I hope you find time to enjoy this beautiful part of the state of Wisconsin, and I thank you all for your good work.

Freedom From Religion Foundation