On Tuesday, June 27th, a statue of the Ten Commandments was erected on the lawn of the Arkansas Capitol. Less than 24 hours later, it was destroyed in what appeared to be an act of protest. The monument, which was allowed to be built under a 2015 law, was the center of immense controversy in the state.
On its face, the monument is perfectly constitutional under the Supreme Court decision in Van Orden v. Perry (2005), which ruled that an almost identical monument on the Texas capitol grounds was constitutional due to its historical value. Despite this fact, the construction of the monument has caused a great deal of soul-searching on the part of Arkansans on what the separation of church and state means and how to ensure that it is maintained.
For those, like myself, who see secularism as a key factor in good governance, it is often difficult to push back on efforts that would intermingle organized religion and government. The issue of the separation of church and state is a divisive one and there is a tendency on both sides to jump to conclusions and mischaracterize the opposition.
People who support blending the two institutions become fundamentalist theocrats. Those who support keeping them separate become anti-Christian. The key to combatting the destruction of barriers between the church and the state is to understand where the other side is coming from, to recognize that this is not so much an issue of dogma as it is one of fear.
In his dissent in the Van Orden case, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that the “adornment of our public spaces with displays of religious symbols and messages undoubtedly provides comfort, even inspiration, to many individuals who subscribe to particular faiths. Unfortunately, the practice also runs the risk of” and continues quoting an opinion of his from a similar case “offend[ing] nonmembers of the faith being advertised as well as adherents who consider the particular advertisement disrespectful.”
What Justice Stevens has captured in these two lines is why we as a country continue to struggle with the concept of the separation of church and state: fear. As Justice Stevens writes, the intermingling of the state and organized religion brings comfort to many. Those who wish to intermingle the two institutions of religion and governance are not doing so out of malice or some secret desire to see the United States devolve into a theocracy, rather they want to know that the government in which they are placing their trust is as solid as their faith.
If we look at history, the United States tends to blur the lines between the church and the state in times of national crisis. The phrase, “In God We Trust” was added to our currency during the Civil War and expanded to all federal notes during Reconstruction as the country grappled with complex issues of identity and the path forward.
President Eisenhower, in seeking to assuage the uneasiness of the nation during the mounting tensions of the Cold War, petitioned Congress in 1954 to add “One Nation Under God” to the pledge of allegiance. When we feel that our national identity is at stake, it seems that the gut reaction of the nation is to find solace in religion by ingratiating it with the government.
And now, as our politics grow more divisive and rhetoric declaring Christendom to be under attack proliferates, we have seen a resurgence of the public’s desire to see Christian symbols represented in their government. Arkansans who supported the Ten Commandments statue are not evil. They are responding in kind to politicians who are exploiting their anxieties about a changing nation.
It is no coincidence that the same supporters of the law that allowed for construction of the monument in the first place, such as infamous State Senator Jason Rapert, supported bills this past legislative session to, among other things, ban Sharia Law from Arkansas courts (which is now Act 980 in the Arkansas Code) and call for a national constitutional convention to propose an amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman (which failed). The defense of all three of these measures centers on a deep-seated fear that Christianity and its practitioners are under attack in a rapidly secularizing world.
Thus, the issue is not so much one of the Separations of Church and State, but rather whether we will let our fear of a changing nation dictate policy. Will we let the fear mongers stoke our insecurities to accomplish their own policy objectives, or will we place our faith in the higher principles upon which the country was founded?