The subject of the following interview is a remarkable man who for more than a generation has led the fight to keep church and state separate. Dr. Glenn L. Archer has been executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State since its founding shortly after World War II. Before that he was dean of the law school at Washburn University, Topeka, Kansas, and special counsel to the National Education Association. He graduated from Greenville College (and subsequently served on its board until that Free Methodist school began accepting public money) and got an M.S. from the University of Colorado and a law degree from Washburn. When he isn’t writing briefs against parochiaid Dr. Archer might be found playing the clarinet or riding horseback on his West Virginia farm.

Question. Dr. Archer, do you think current trends are working for or against the principle of church-state separation?

ANSWER. The church-state separation balance sheet has a credit side and a debit side. On the credit side there are the great Court decisions, particularly the United States Supreme Court decision of June, 1973, and the (victorious) referenda in six states. We who believe in the separation of church and state have worked patiently and painstakingly for twenty-six years to bring a good set of facts before the Supreme Court. Years ago, in 1947, I predicted that a proper set of facts would compel the Court to take a firm stand favoring our tradition and laws of separation. My prediction has come true. Even the electorate responds favorably when the facts are given cogently.

On the debit side are the unrelenting efforts of many people to bypass the decisions of the Court and to repudiate the will of the people. These efforts are sponsored by people who demand tax money for their religious institutions. It is a self-seeking endeavor. One wonders why church people—in the main, good people—pursue the policy of expedience rather than principle; why they would sell their birthright for a mess of pottage! God, not taxes, is the crying need of churches and church people.

Q. What do you mean by that?

A. Well, for one thing, church schools change for the worse when taxes and government enroll. God walks out as Mammon comes in. Federal subsidies demand a dilution of the religious teaching to satisfy the common demand. Tax money secularizes church institutions because along with the public money come secular guidelines to manage and control the church institutions.

Q. What has been the biggest change in the church-state situation since you began your campaign?

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A. Probably that the issue is no longer a Roman Catholic issue. Opposition to our position has grown among Protestants. Some Protestant college presidents are being tempted by the easy tax dollar. In the early days it was possible to line up nearly all the Jewish, Protestant, and secular communities behind church-state separation. Now Protestant groups are less unanimous in their support. I sometimes wonder if the decline of institutional religion’s influence on American culture is not one reason for the increased willingness to take tax money. Taxes come easier than tithes. At any rate, the change makes the task of Americans United more important and more difficult.

Q. You have said repeatedly that separation of church and state is good for both. Have any recent developments led you to reconsider your thesis, or at least to recast the issue or shift strategy?

A. No. Separation preserves the prophetic ministry of the churches and the independence of government from clericalism. It’s highly important for the church to be independent of the state so that it may preach the Gospel without fear or intimidation. It’s difficult for the church operating from the position of a debtor to speak forthrightly against bad practices and policies of the state. History clearly teaches that when the church and the state are united, you have a vicious tyranny over the minds of all people.

Q. But Dr. Archer, things are changing so much. When the First Amendment was adopted, taxes were a minute part of the gross national product, whereas today this represents as much as a third. Tax money is now used for everything imaginable.

A. True, but this does not obviate the principle that using tax funds for religious purposes is unconstitutional, unwise, and undesirable. Religion is too precious to be classed with raising wheat (farm subsidies) or repairing teeth (welfare programs). Despite taxes, church people are more affluent today than ever in American history—certainly more affluent than when we built church schools.

Q. When Americans United lost its tax-exempt status in 1969, why could you not simply have formed a small, separate corporate entity to do the lobbying, devoting the original organization to the broader task of public education?

A. We believe the IRS acted under pressure, without justification, and against the Constitution when it deprived Americans United of its tax-exempt status. Our principal opponent, the Roman Catholic lobby, has tax exemption. It’s difficult to understand why people doing the same thing should be treated differently by the IRS.

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Some of our leaders have formed a new legal entity that does no lobbying. This organization is known as Americans United Research Foundation, and it does have tax exemption. It has a different board of directors and is completely separate from Americans United.

Q. Dr. Archer, for a long time, while the cases were being decided in the courts, your organization was silent on the issue of prayer and Bible reading in the public schools. What prompted you to come out in opposition? What harm would there be in a constitutional amendment that would simply correct the overkill that local courts and school districts, principals, and teachers have instituted in response to the ban on religious exercises in schools?

A. We believe there’s a proper place for both prayer and Bible reading. We favor and engage in both. But we would not discriminate against those who have different religious views. Public schools belong to all of us. These schools should not be used for a particular creedal emphasis. The Bible can be studied as literature. Any child may now pray voluntarily in any public school. If there is an overkill as you assert, it’s a matter that can be handled by local parents and administrative officers.

People have to make some sacrifices to have full religious liberty. If religion means anything in our lives, it means that we respect the rights and the religious sensibilities of our fellow citizens. The practice of the golden rule should not be rejected by a religious person.

Q. In view of the long history of prayer and Bible reading in the public schools, do you believe that the framers of the Constitution intended to prohibit such exercises?

A. Sin has been around a long time, too, but it’s still sin. It’s not uncommon for abuses to be tolerated for decades before there is redress. With the complexity of our society and with the crowding of people into metropolitan areas, religious-liberty problems brought to the fore some religious abuses occurring in the public institutions. It is quite proper for the courts to correct these abuses in the interests of all of the citizens. Jefferson insisted that religion be carried on off the campus of the University of Virginia. Actually, religion is more vital when it is carried on in the home and in the church and synagogue than in a public school where a watered-down version of religion is taught by a teacher who may know very little about religious values or experience.

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Q. How do you feel about the removal of the Christian religious symbols from the White House Christmas pageant when the pagan religious symbols were left intact?

A. I believe that religious festivals should take place in or on property owned by the church. Let the government promote civil festivals. But this isn’t a major problem. Americans United hasn’t had the manpower to shoot rabbits when there are so many bears around in the church-state woods. In Spain, religious festivals abound, but many who participate in them seem to know little about the Jesus they celebrate. Religion is an experience, not a promotion.

Q. Why does Americans United oppose dual enrollment? Is it not a decent compromise in which the government aid involved is no more direct than tax exemption?

A. We have found that dual enrollment creates administrative problems which lead to religious rivalry and jealousies and harmful entanglements. I have never known a dual enrollment to work smoothly. When I was on the state board of education in Kansas, we had problems in this area. We were constantly besieged by Roman Catholic leaders who thought that the public school people were discriminating against them and by public school administrators who thought the Roman Catholics were trying to get all the choice periods of the day. Furthermore, the practice is expensive, and it wastes time. Disciplinary problems arise between students and teachers with no one certain of administrative authority.

Q. So your objections are really not principial, right?

A. You’re wrong. Principle is also involved. Dual enrollments amount to a tax gift to the religious school. Equipment owned by the public is used by the church. Salaried people are employed for the use of the church. There is a tax entanglement involved here which the courts have rejected.

Q. In the case of the Amish in Wisconsin, the Supreme Court recognized that the public schools undermined their religious convictions. Why should the Amish be exempt from compulsory school attendance when all other religious people are not?

A. The Supreme Court in the Amish decision in Wisconsin did not state that the public school undermined the religious convictions of the Amish children. It merely recognized that there was a conflict between religious freedom and the right of the children for a moderate education. The Court had to choose between religious freedom and the state requirement of education. In the balance of the equities, religious freedom won—and rightly so. I think we will hear a great deal more from this decision; already there are some rumblings from Amish leaders that focus upon what is called “rights of children.”

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Q. As you know, Dr. Archer, a considerable reaction against public education has set in. Inner-city schools are inadequately staffed, funded, and maintained. Suburban schools are going the route of social experimentation and/or coming under the control of secular (even atheistic) philosophy. Isn’t it coming to the point where true religious liberty may be more manifest in parochial schools?

A. There is need for educational reform in the public schools, but this reform can be brought about by an enlightened citizenry, because the public school merely reflects the cultural interests and levels of its community. The nature of religious freedom in a public school depends upon the citizenry. They can have as much or as little as they wish, save where the court intervenes.

Americans United has never been opposed to parochial schools. We will fight for the right of any church to establish its own schools as long as the church and the parents who use these schools pay for them without tax funds. I myself spent eight years in a parochial high school and a church-related college. I support these institutions and serve on their boards.

If it is true that the public schools are becoming secular and atheistic, I would recommend a greater parental interest in these institutions, because they come under the control of the people who live in the school district. I doubt that full religious freedom can exist in a parochial school that is designed to emphasize the religion of a single denomination. There is freedom for that denomination, but is there freedom for those of other denominations? Is there freedom in the selection of the faculty? The parochial school is a special-purpose school. That special purpose is thwarted when it is subsidized by taxes and when it is wide open to all denominations and persons of no denomination, when its faculty must be chosen from all denominations and from those of no denomination. Not many churchmen would want a church school if it were truly public.

Like all institutions regulated by men, public schools have their faults and failures. But careless and false criticisms of public schools are being made today. Public schools need not be atheistic. Teachers are Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Roman Catholic—surely they are not teaching atheistic doctrine. The public schools have the same problems that our society has because they are a reflection of the public. As churchmen we have a job to do in shaping a spiritual, religious society. Then our schools will be worthy.

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Q. You are retiring this year. As you look back, have you changed your mind about any important church-state matters? Is it true that Americans United has subdued its polemic in favor of a more irenic approach? Are there issues that would now oblige you to change your mind in any way?

A. Americans United has not changed its goal. It may, like a good boxer, adjust to circumstances and conditions. Strategies change with conditions. New skills are developed as experience sharpens procedures. Experience and age may add to wisdom and maturity.

Q. Do you actually think it would be wrong to give relief from public school taxes to parents who choose to send their children to parochial schools?

A. The public school is in dire need of public funds. Diverting some of these funds to parochial schools impairs the public school program of the nation. To give “tax relief” to parents who send their children to the parochial schools would be diverting public taxes to a religious undertaking—however indirect the scheme may be. It would raise religious antagonism and create a world of administrative problems harmful to the ecumenical spirit that seeks harmony among creeds. Churches ought to obey the law, and they ought not to seek ways of circumventing it. Public taxes must by law always be subject to public controls. Public controls do not grace a sacred church.

Q. We’ve heard a lot of talk about “civil religion” the last several years. Do you think there is such a thing in this country, and if so, what is it?

A. I have no fear of what is erroneously called “civil religion.” I think that true religion can hold its own in any public forum. It has the strength to withstand all its enemies. “Civil religion” is a form of church-state union or quasi-union. Truly applied separationist principles can prevent such an amalgam. I don’t accept the thesis that God loves Americans any more than he loves his other children, or that he loves white Americans more than black, or vice versa. I think God loves all his children and that if his children respond to that love, they will pay for all the institutions necessary for promoting their religion. I believe that a churchman who seeks public taxes for his institution has about the same ethics that a salesman has in buying his wife a coat from the company expense account. His wife may enjoy the coat, but the purchase raises a question about the husband’s honesty and also about his devotion.

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Q. But do you think there is a “civil religion” in America?

A. Yes, some frustrated Americans seem to be embracing new forms of idolatry. There have always been a few idolaters in the world who place state above God, or who seek some other form of false worship. The answer to idolatry in every age has been the acceptance of the true God. He is not dead. Those who seek may find him, and when they do “civil religion” will fade and perish.

Q. How far should we go toward absolute separation of church and state? Our calendar, for example, dates back to Christ. Is that undue Christian influence? Should we adopt some other way of reckoning years?

A. Separation of church and state does not mean separating religion from society. The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The religious commitment of the citizens of our country is apparent. We accept practices that do not impose religion on citizens. Church-state separation neither requires nor prohibits use of the Christian calendar.

Q. Many argue that the First Amendment merely sought to protect this country against establishment of religion. After all, “separation of church and state” is not found anywhere in the Constitution as such. You feel that the framers had more in mind, right?

A. Definitely. Jefferson’s famous letter of 1802 to the Danbury Baptists, where this phrase is first used, indicates for us the intent of the Founding Fathers. The records of the debates in Congress and the Virginia legislature lead us to believe that our wise and farsighted leaders wished to spare America from the ravages of religious warfare and intolerance which had drenched Europe in blood for centuries. Separating the institutions of religion and government is the only way to achieve freedom of conscience.

Q. What do you see as the big church-state issues of the future?

A. Some of them may be summarized as: the problems inherent in fiscal and administrative entanglements between religious and political institutions; the role of religion in public education; an attempt to revise the First Amendment to accommodate parochiaiders and school prayer extremists.

I don’t see why sinners would want to join a church whose members are unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices to advance God’s kingdom.

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Q. Isn’t it true that one kind of religion or another is invariably taught in the public educational system? What do you say to parents who object that their children are being influenced to accept unbiblical values?

A. I don’t believe it’s true that some kind of religion is taught in all public education. The public school is what the local community wants it to be. Sometimes there are abuses, but these abuses can be corrected by an alert community. We shouldn’t expect perfection from our public schools. A public school has no more faults than other institutions such as the church and the home. I grew up in a home where religion was so vital that nothing could weaken my convictions. Among eight children, all were ordained ministers.


Aged, infirm and incontinent,

They come to Sunday and to prayers

From ward behind recessed ward;

Buttoned to beds and chairs,

Buttoned to stiff upright clothes,

They come, not to see,

Not to hear, not to respond;

Yet who knows what offering

Their ills make upon altars?

Eroded out of the world’s way,

They have been folded, closeted,

Like old linens, old faces like embroidered linen

Folded in upon themselves, unacceptable

Longer to kin and to community;

Yet who knows in this communion

How they may be adequate

In the sight of One likewise unacceptable

To those he lived among, the outcast

Buttoned to crossed hoists and spat upon?


Q. Is it possible to teach ethics and morality without grounding them in some religious tradition or at least in some life-and-world view that is ultimately and of necessity a religious matter?

A. I contend that there are many commonly held values in different cultures that are central to many religious traditions—such as honesty, the sanctity of life, charity. Religion should be the vehicle for sound ethics. In the study of comparative religion, these religious values come to the surface, and due credit may be given to the traditions.

Q. Thousands of clergymen in our pulpits today are there because the government paid their way through seminary under the GI Bill. Do you think that was a violation of the principle of church-state separation?

A. War throws many values to the wind and discards many principles. In a way the veterans’ bill is a payment for time lost and a means of reintroducing the returning veteran quickly into the life of the nation. I see no more danger in paying a veteran for time lost than in paying a government worker a salary for services rendered. The soldier rendered services to the nation and gave up his occupation to so do.

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Q. Do you feel that your views on church and state have a religious sanction? What are your personal religious convictions?

A. I believe in a free church and a free state. This has been the watchword of Americans United. I think the Bible clearly teaches that man is created free to follow God’s will or to reject God’s will. If God made us free in religious matters, will he allow government to impose an approved religion upon us or compel us to pay for a religion to which we do not subscribe? Here man interferes with God’s will. I took this job believing I could serve my state, my church, and my God. I hope I have not been mistaken!

Q. Let’s talk about the Roman Catholics. After all, they have been your main target all along. They are now so divided among themselves on all kinds of issues—has not their power dissipated to the point that they are not really a great force to reckon with?

A. A good deal of the church-state union tradition exists in the higher circles of the Roman Catholic Church. This is one reason why church-state separation has had a difficult time in the United States. I welcome any support from Roman Catholics on this issue because it’s helpful to the freedom of all churches. Those of us who believe in church-state separation believe in resisting all pressures for tax funds, regardless of the source. I must confess sadly that there has been no lessening of the drive for tax funds for churches by the Roman church.

Q. What is your answer, then, to the question of whether their power is now dissipated?

A. There has been some diffusion of power within the church, but this realignment of interior structure has not been noticeable in the power plays for tax funds for church schools. Rather, it has been increased since the Pope himself has urged the nations of the world to support Roman Catholic schools with tax funds. American principles, tested by time, are not subject to the ideological climate of any church, or the strengths or weaknesses of an institution.

Q. In the American military, parents are reimbursed for tuition payments to private schools if a child is recognized to have special needs. Is this not in effect a voucher plan?

A. A number of practices in the American military are the outcomes of undue political influence and pressure, and some of these practices are contrary to a strict interpretation of the church-state separation principle. The military situation, I think, is an abnormal situation to deal with man’s inability to live at peace. These temporary, possible constitutional breaches of the wall of church-state separation should not become precedents for violation on a vast scale, universally applied and permanently established. What we do in war times is not necessarily sound procedure for peace times.

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Q. Is not the voucher plan still a legal option and an issue on which the courts have not yet ruled?

A. I contend that any effort that seeks to do indirectly what the Supreme Court has outlawed is a violation of law. Churches ought to set a better example. The real facts are that a type of voucher plan was rejected by the Vermont supreme court in 1960. The Court clearly indicates that it is not permissible to aid parochial schools in any way, directly or indirectly. If vouchers are set up for this purpose, they will ultimately be found unconstitutional. From educational, administrative, economic, social, and other points of view, the voucher plan is a can of worms that had best be left unopened.

All churches and all religions are being weighed in the balances today, and there is nothing that will enhance the image of a church like having churchmen pay for the religion of their choice. I don’t see why sinners would want to join a church whose members are unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices to advance God’s kingdom.

Q. Don’t you feel the need to sensitize young people, especially regarding the defense of religious liberty, and to educate pastors that teaching the tithe is preferable to lobbying for tax dollars?

A. Absolutely. I hope young people who are searching for meaningful values to guide their lives will recognize that the principle of freedom of conscience is inalienable, indeed sacred. If history teaches us anything, it is that liberty comes only with struggle and must be carefully secured and defended. In all of recorded history, the periods when man has been truly free are few and far between. Only in the last two centuries, and primarily in only a small corner of the world, has man been truly free.

Despite the anxieties over secularism, materialism, and Communism, I hold these grave problems can better be solved in a free society where the Church is free and independent from the state. The state, now exhibiting itself in Washington, D. C., is no haven for God’s people or God’s church. We who claim to be God’s messengers have work to do, and begging funds from government is not on the agenda!

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