“Have you ever delved into the mysteries of Eastern religion?” one California weirdo asks another in the Gary Brookins and Susie MacNelly comic strip, Shoe. “Yes,” comes the reply. “I was once a Methodist in Philadelphia.”
For a long time that was about the extent of Americans’ exposure to the varieties of religious experience. As the scholar Diana Eck reminds us, for most of our history our religious discourse was dominated by a culturally conservative European heritage. Alternative visions of faith rarely reached the mainstream. That has changed markedly as we steam deeper into the twenty-first century. Almost eighty percent of Americans still identify themselves as Christians, but they are a far more motley lot than the mainstream media either understands or reports. Other faiths are now making their presence felt, and our religious landscape is being re-created right before our eyes.
In the eighteenth century, a rather novel idea was born. Being a product of the Enlightenment, the Bill of Rights – those ten amendments attached to our Constitution – provided that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”(First Amendment). And Article VI of the United States Constitution specifies that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
The modern concept of a wholly secular government is sometimes credited to the writings of English philosopher John Locke, but the phrase “separation of church and state” in this context is generally traced to Thomas Jefferson’s reply on 1 January 1802, to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut, who had congratulated Jefferson upon his election as president. In Jefferson’s reply is a phrase that is as familiar in today’s political and judicial circles as the lyrics of a hit song: “. . .I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” (underlining mine for emphasis)
Throughout much of human history such an idea was all but unimaginable. Historically, religion has always been in the service of the state. In the Bible, Moses the political and tribal leader of Israel, appointed Aaron, his brother, to be the High Priest and second in command. To think of a separation of tribe from religion was not conceivable. The same was true in the history of the nation states of Europe. Almost without exception, there was in each nation an “established church.” A citizen was a Presbyterian in Scotland, an Anglican in England, a Roman Catholic in Southern Europe and Ireland, a Lutheran in northern Germany and Scandinavia and a member of Eastern Orthodoxy in Russia, Eastern Europe and Greece. Public money supported the ecclesiastical organizations and they did the will of the state. This close connection was symbolized by the fact that a cross was emblazoned on most of their flags. Look at the flags of Australia, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, to name just a few to see what I mean.
This connection does not suggest that the citizens of those lands were unified in either their religious convictions or in their political practices, but it does mean that their battles were fought inside the structure of a state-supported religious system. We see the remnants of this system still at work in the political structures of the United States today.
In our current presidential nominating process, for example, the candidates regularly appeal to the religious sensibilities of the people. “God bless America” ends almost every presidential speech these days. “God bless America” and its derivatives did not regularly enter the presidential lexicon until 30 April 1973, when President Richard Nixon used it in the midst of the Watergate scandal. While that was the beginning, it was not until President Ronald Reagan regularly began using it that the term really caught on. Ever since, it has been a standard remark made in the conclusion of many official presidential speeches. “God bless America,” I believe, has lost its meaning over the years and has been treated by presidents as a way to satisfy the appetites of those in the public and press corps who want assurance that this person, this president, is a real, God-fearing American.
Further, Republican front-runner and billionaire business mogul, Donald Trump, in trying to show his familiarity with religious symbols, described his participation in the service of Holy Communion this way: “I eat the little cracker and I sip the wine.” It was a good try, but it revealed just how foreign the Eucharist really is to “the Donald.” Lately, Trump has been appearing at rallies brandishing a Bible, calling the Bible his favorite book and superior to his own book, The Art of the Deal. Others on the campaign trail quote the Bible frequently, though not always intelligently. For instance, another presidential candidate, Dr. Ben Carson, recently suggested, to the amazement of Egyptologists that the Egyptian pyramids were not built as burial places for the Pharaohs, but as huge granaries that the patriarch Joseph used to store the grain gathered during the seven years of plenty so that he could feed the people during the seven years of famine, referring to a story in the book of Genesis (Genesis 42). In any Bible examination, Dr. Carson would receive a big fat “F.”
A much more abhorrent use of the Bible was employed recently in Iowa at something misnamed as “The National Religious Liberties Conference,” hosted by fundamentalist preacher, Kevin Swanson. Swanson has long promoted the idea that government should impose biblical law in order to get on the right side of God but, like his fellow Christian Reconstructionists, he also believes that conservatives like himself must change the culture first before the government can begin imposing Old Testament laws such as the death penalty for homosexuality. Three presidential candidates were on the program: Governor Mike Huckabee, Governor Bobby Jindal and Senator Ted Cruz. (What in the world were they doing there?) The host quoted the Bible to prove that God wanted this nation to “arrest and put to death all homosexual persons.” He qualified this call for murder only by saying that these homosexual persons should be given a chance to repent of their sins as a possible reprieve from execution. His text was Leviticus 20:13 – “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.” The boundary between religion and politics, between church and state has always been fuzzy. The fact is, this boundary has regularly been violated.
The people appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate to serve on the Supreme Court, whose task it is to interpret the Constitution, have historically been people of faith and religious convictions. In time, there grew up a tradition, not a law, that one seat on the Court was designated as “the Jewish seat” to which only a Jew could be appointed. There was also an earlier tradition that one seat was thought of as “the Catholic seat.” When Justice Francis “Frank” Murphy, a Roman Catholic, retired in 1949, President Harry S. Truman declined to accept the claim of a “Catholic seat” on the Court, and the period 1949-1956 marked the only time since 1894 that no Roman Catholic served on the country’s highest court. Truman named Tom C. Clark, a Presbyterian whose chief importance lies in the fact that in the 1960s he redefined religion in the broadest possible way: “a sincere and meaningful belief which occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by God in the lives of others.” Although some people thought religion had to emanate “from a superior source,” Clark held that such was not a tenable principle under the Constitution. But in 1956 President Dwight D. Eisenhower was persuaded that a Roman Catholic should be appointed, and a search produced the name of William J. Brennan, a justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York was consulted and confirmed that Brennan was indeed a practicing Roman Catholic. But an acquaintance said of Brennan, “Those who knew him realized that, although he was a decent person and God-fearing, he was not a zealously religious man. He was Catholic with a small ‘c.’” Eisenhower’s wish to please Roman Catholics by naming one of their own to the Court led, ironically, to the appointment of a man who would use his power to undermine Roman Catholic interests at every point.
It is interesting to note that the current Supreme Court is made up of six Roman Catholics and three Jews. For the first time in American history, no Protestant Christian sits on that bench. How times have changed. Three of the Roman Catholics – Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito – are identified with the most conservative aspects of Roman Catholicism. Two others, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy, are identified as more moderate Roman Catholics, while the sixth, Justice Sotomayor, is clearly in the liberal wing of her church. Does the religious affiliation of the justices affect their vote? Can church and state ever be completely separated?
We have many 5-4 conservative victory decisions from the Court. The conservative majority is made up of five of the Roman Catholic justices. The liberal block of four includes the three Jewish Justices – Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan – and the one liberal Roman Catholic, Justice Sonia Sotomayor. On some votes, however, there is a defection from the conservative Roman Catholic side to the liberal side. Chief Justice Roberts, for example, joined the four liberals to uphold the crucial key provision of the Affordable Health Care Act. Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the liberal foursome to make marriage equality a human right for all citizens. So there does appear to be some religious influences in politics for all sides, which means that the lines separating church and state are not always clear. It also means that the partnership between organized religion and political power has from time to time been used to violate the rights of American citizens, making the constitutional requirement for separation of church and state a necessity.
The issues between church and state are always fuzzy, always subject to the tides of one’s conscience. Separation of the two will always be a struggle, but that struggle must always be engaged. If we do not engage in the struggle, I fear we stand a good chance that a theocracy will be established, especially if some of the Republican candidates such as Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum have their way. So this radical enlightenment-born concept of the separation of church and state will always require constant attention. That is why those of us who see the necessity of the separation of church and state must always stay strong, vigilant and alert. Call me an alarmist, but our freedom, perhaps even the survival of some of our fellow citizens, especially those who are not Christian, will be at risk if the separation is not both firm and effective. This is a necessary wall worth keeping.