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Bearing True Witness

Jeremy Gunn,
Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief
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April 25, 2008

‘Ain’t that a shame!’

Those were the words from Pat Boone’s 1955 hit single that came to mind when I read his recent ‘ACLU: Tear down this wall!’

Now I’m not as much of a biblical scholar as Pat Boone, but I always believed that one of the core messages of the Bible is ‘not to bear false witness.’ When we talk about someone else, or when we describe their positions, we certainly ought to do the best we can to be accurate.

Isn’t that true?

If I wanted to argue with Pat Boone about an issue, the first thing I should do is make sure that I know what his position is. So I would read his writings, listen to his talks, and maybe even listen to a song or two. It would also make sense to visit his home page.

It would of course be unfair if I were to start out by ridiculing him with caricatures, exaggerations, and stereotypes – and then suggest that somehow I know why he behaves the way he does. We all know how nasty things can become when people lead with an insult rather than the facts.

Indeed, it is not hard to bear false witness – anyone can do it.

Bearing true witness requires care. It requires discernment. It requires honesty. It requires verifying rather than vilifying.

The words that Pat Boone uses to describe the ACLU – which he offers in support of true religion – certainly don’t sound like words coming from someone who takes seriously the command to ‘love your enemy’! Boone says:

I believe that even in their diabolical determination to remove every vestige of religion from public life – every mention of God or scripture from pledges, from currency, from public ceremony – that even they realize there are still some limits to how far they can go in robbing the vast majority of Americans of their freedom of speech, of expression, of liberty itself. I think they sensed that, were they to mount their customary screeches, litigation and protest, against the most admired single person on the planet, they might just spark a long overdue rejection of their insidious campaign.’

Now where did good old Pat get such ideas? I looked through his article and see that he never actually quotes an ACLU position on anything.

Rather than believing that he already knows ACLU’s positions (which clearly he does not), I invite Mr. Boone to go to our religion web page and look at two ACLU documents that reveal almost the opposite of what he imagines.

Does he have any proof for the extravagant claim that the ACLU is seeking ‘to remove every vestige of religion from public life,’ or is that just some fanciful false witnessing?

The truth – for those who seek it – can be found in part in the major statement of the ACLU position on freedom of religion.

For example:

Religion is pervasive in the public square in the United States – and it is constitutionally protected. The ACLU has long defended individuals, families, and religious communities who wish to manifest their religion in public…

The ACLU has supported the right of people to preach their religion in public places and to go door-to-door to spread their religious messages. The Constitution properly protects the right of religious figures to preach their messages over the public airwaves. Religious books, magazines, and newspapers are freely published and delivered through the U.S. Postal System. No other industrialized democracy has as much religion in the public square as does the United States.

All of this is constitutionally protected and the ACLU defends the rights of individuals, families, and religious communities to express such religious beliefs in public.

The ACLU does however believe that it is not the role of the government to be promoting religious beliefs or deciding religious questions – whether it’s the religion of the great Pat Boone or the mighty Reverend Moon.

These are the true ACLU positions. Now maybe Pat Boone believes that it is a good idea for the government to be endorsing religious beliefs and paying for religious activities. Fine. Let’s have a serious debate about that. But to suggest that the ACLU is trying to eliminate every vestige of religion in public is bearing false witness and the facts prove otherwise.

For example, the ACLU has represented many religious believers – including many Christians – in helping them to exercise their rights to manifest their religion in the public square. A list of recent ACLU cases on just this issue include:

  • the right of Christians to protest against a gay pride event;
  • the right of high-school athletes not to violate their Sabbath by playing sports;
  • the right of an elementary-school student to sing Awesome God in a school talent show;
  • the right of a Christian to condemn homosexuality in front of a Wal-Mart store;
  • the right of churches to obtain a zoning permit that had been denied;
  • the right of Evangelical Christians to preach in public;
  • the right of public school students to express religious messages to other students;
  • the right of a Christian to erect a cross on public property that was an ‘open forum.’

The document gives dozens of other examples. All of these facts are easily available for someone who wants to know the truth. When the ACLU opposes religious symbols it is when they are promoted by the government or when they erected on government property. The issue is not ‘religion in the public square’; the issue is government-sponsored religion.

And I’ll even wager that Pat Boone himself does not want the government to be promoting any religion other than the one in which he believes. If he ever lobbies to erect monuments to the Koran in front of the Courthouse or inserting the beliefs of L. Ron Hubbard in the Pledge of Allegiance, then I’ll eat my hat. I’ll eat his too.

Perhaps someday Pat Boone will finally read the actual ACLU positions and conclude that he doesn’t agree with them. Perhaps he will find some contradictions or inconsistencies. (Lord knows we’re only human!) Or perhaps he sincerely believes that it is a good idea for government officials to get in the business of deciding which religion the state should support and which religions it should not. Well, then we can debate those issues. But let’s not start out by throwing mud.

Finally, I hope that Mr. Boone does not think that the biblical command against bearing false witness should not apply to those who claim to act in the name of religion. That would be a shame.

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