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Rev. Steven Baines takes pride in his affable personality, a trait emphasized through his ease in addressing the 100+ individuals at the Deerfield Beach Progressive Forum and in his sense of humor. However, when it came time to addressing the increasing role of religion in U.S. politics, his tone took on a much more serious edge.
“If we as Americans are going to be free, we must preserve the separation of church and state,” he said, “this is not a Liberal or Conservative issue, it is an American ideal.” Baines, the assistant field director for religious outreach at Americans United, emphasized that government should have limited say in religious affairs.
Regarding criticisms by members of the religious right that progressives wanted to remove all aspects of religion from daily life, he countered by stating that the Founding Fathers were Deistic and Unitarian in their beliefs, and that their decision to deemphasize religion in political affairs was something “that they got right.”
“The only reference to a deity that we have in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution is the nebulous phrase of ‘being endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights,’” he said. “When the Founders put their names to that Constitution, there is no mention of religion, God or Jesus because they knew that the proper role of religion was left to you and me.”
In order to maintain a strict separation of church and state, individuals must recognize and appreciate the First Amendment, which is, according to Baines, “the cornerstone of our republic.” “Unfortunately,” he said, “many people have forgotten the value of this amendment and the clear separation of church and state that this amendment spells out to us.”
Some of these individuals are found comprising the Republican primary landscape, noted Baines. As he spoke, he cast a critical eye on politicians who would choose to use the tenets of religion to benefit their own ends. “Nothing can be more destructive than choosing to favor one religion over another,” he pointed out. “In fact, government should be neutral on religion, neither favoring it, promoting it or prohibiting one from expressing it.”
Baines was especially critical toward politicians comprising the Republican Party; particularly members of the Tea Party whom he believes are out to create a theocracy rather than a democracy. “When an entire party proclaims that Sharia law has taken over Constitutional law in the United States of America, we have a crisis on our hands,” he said.
Baines also expressed amazement at the GOP candidates who believed that God had specifically chosen them to assume the presidential mantle. “Anderson Cooper should ask them at the next debate: which ones of you have really heard the voice of God, and which ones are listening to the crazy voices in your head,” he said, causing a roar of laughter in the audience.
He then wondered aloud if God was a betting deity, mainly because the candidates who God “endorsed” in the presidential race have since dropped out. “Cain and Bachmann are already gone, and Rick Perry is not far behind,” he observed. Baines found Bachmann’s concession speech particularly amusing, as she went from God calling her to run to believing that God has “other plans for her.”
A particular concern of Baines’, however, centered on faith-based programs that received government funding. While he admitted to having no personal objectives to these programs’ purposes, he made it clear that he found it unacceptable when these programs employ religious discrimination against those they deem undeserving.
As Baines moved toward concluding his speech, he read some words from an essay titled “An American Constitution: Is America a Christian Nation?” The essay noted that a “holy Constitution” would eventually result in Americans split into two separate groups. These groups would include those who allow religion to inform their decisions, and those who abide by reason to make their choices.
Ultimately, the essay said, God’s place is in our hearts rather than the Constitution. Reading those final words resulted in huge applause from his receptive audience. Lillian Steiner, a former teacher, greatly appreciated having the opportunity to hear Rev. Baines speak. “I agree with everything that he has said,” she said confidently.
Steiner also agreed with Baines’ humorous take on the GOP Presidential field. “I think that the choices present in the GOP field are just terrible,” she pointed out. Steven Handler, a board member of the Deerfield Progressive Forum, praised Baines’ clear and concise words. He liked that Baines pointed out that it was their responsibility to educate others. Rev. Baines certainly succeeded in that endeavor, much to the delight of those around him.