'Separation of Church and State' Key to American Achievement, Says Lynne Cheney

By Christine Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:20 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - On a day when President Bush promoted his faith-based initiative plan, and less than a week after a federal court issued a ruling against the pledge of allegiance for its reference to God, the vice president's wife was striking a different chord.

"I sometimes think that the little engine that has made us such a wonder of achievement across so many fields of human endeavor is the separation of church and state," said Lynne Cheney, author, American Enterprise Institute scholar, former National Endowment for the Humanities chairman, and vice presidential spouse.

That separation means "that we live in a place where there's intellectual freedom, where we can think anything we want to, and we can think creatively," she explained. "We can think outside the box."

Cheney's comments also come on the heels of a Supreme Court ruling that a government funded voucher program does not violate the First Amendment establishment clause even if parents choose to use vouchers at a parochial school.

Bush addressed the Holy Redeemer Church of God in Christ in Milwaukee, Wis., on the subject of his faith-based initiative, urging Congress to eliminate barriers now hindering faith-based groups from participating in government-funded community and welfare services.

The topic of Cheney's speech, delivered to a luncheon crowd at the National Press Club on Tuesday, was the dreadful state of young Americans' knowledge of history.

She pointed to recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showing 57 percent of high school seniors scoring below basic in the U.S. history exam. In other words, a majority of students could not identify the significance of important places, people and ideas in American history.

The underlying problems, Cheney believes, include low educational standards ("only about a fifth of the states have good standards"), unprepared teachers ("particularly in the early grades, teachers have not been encouraged to study history in college"), and revisionist history taught at the university level.

"I've spent some time in recent years reading books that are assigned in undergraduate history courses and in education courses across the country, and I've come across some really surprising ideas, such as the notion that events like the Civil War, long thought significant, really don't matter very much," she said.

"Union victory might have meant emancipation for African-Americans, one widely-used book tells us, but they and working-class Americans of every race were subsequently enslaved by capitalism," Cheney added.

Another common but wrong-headed notion, she says, is that it's a mistake to study leaders in history "because doing so perpetrates the myth that he represents something important to all of us, and there is nothing important to all of us ... [because] our society consists of different groups with different interests."

"According to this view, and those who say otherwise -- and this is in a widely-used book -- those who say otherwise are simply trying to make sure that the oppressed stay that way," Cheney said.

"Still another idea I've come across is that the American story is a tale of sound and fury that doesn't signify very much," she added. "To believe that we have made progress, so the thinking goes, is to be ethnocentric, to fall victim to a myth that the powerful use to keep everybody else in their place.

These ideas are easy to refute, says Cheney. "But, you have to know something in order to dispute them," and parents and grandparents need to step up to the plate and help children learn important historical figures and events.

"We need to know so that we can tell them about the courageous men and women who inspired us to live up to the ideals that the founders advanced, people like Frederick Douglass, who worked not only against slavery but for the rights of African-Americans, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton who ... spent 50 years fighting for women's rights, and ... meanwhile, raised seven children," she said.

Cheney tried to dodge a question from the audience that referenced her daughter, Mary, who is rumored to be homosexual.

"With an openly gay daughter, why aren't you and the vice president more supportive of gay and lesbian civil rights that could ease her burden?" one audience member asked.

"If you met my daughter Mary, you wouldn't think of her as a burdened young woman," Cheney first offered. "She is a wonderful young woman who is just about to finish business school. We are very proud of our entire family."

When pressed about the need for getting involved in "the issue of gay and lesbian rights," Cheney cited her husband's comments during the 2000 vice presidential debate with Democratic candidate Joseph Lieberman.

"I think that Dick had exactly the right answer when he was asked about this," she said. "He really said that people in our society should have the right to live their lives as they choose."

E-mail a news tip to Christine Hall.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.