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National Opinion

The Eagle and The Cross: Religion and the American Republic

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”

Proverbs 9:10 describes how God is the apex of all knowledge, the end goal of human reason. Naturally, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) takes a different view of the matter. The FFRF website asks will I join “to promote nontheism and defend the constitutional separation between religion and government?” One could be forgiven for being unsure what precisely the constitutional separation between church and state is, and why one ought to promote the lack of belief in something. An article they published helps illustrate precisely what they mean. In writing about a slew of laws proposing various religious activities in the public sphere, such as Bible studies or public prayer, they use pretty charged language. When describing Project Blitz, a concerted effort to promote such bills, they say the following: “It seeks to inject state legislatures with a whole host of religious bills, imposing the theocratic version of a powerful few on We The People. Their proposals signal an unvarnished attack on American secularism and civil liberties—those things we cherish most about our democracy and now must tirelessly defend.”  Earlier in the article, they state that  Project Blitz seeks to destroy the separation between church and state, and advance a false notion that America was founded as a Christian nation. 

Clearly, this organization has a particular view of the separation of church and state. To them, religion ought to play no role in the public sphere. Laws which are religiously motivated, or promote any sort of theism,  are unconstitutional. Firstly, the framing of their claims is quite telling. Apparently, religious law is the machination of “a powerful few.” Apparently, religion is not something held by the vast majority of Americans; rather it is foisted upon those citizens who would otherwise be secular and free. Nevermind that, according to Gallup polling, nearly four-fifths of Americans are religiously affiliated. The FFRF is advancing a claim that America’s founding was an entirely secular affair, that the Founders envisioned a nation free of religion, and that religion has no place in the public sphere. No matter their claims, their beliefs do not hold up to scrutiny on historical, legal, and logical grounds. 

What does the Constitution say about the separation of church and state? The obvious place to look regarding religious practice is the First Amendment. Regarding religion, it states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” How are we to interpret the “establishment of religion?” Here it may be useful to look to the model the Founding Fathers were rebelling against—Great Britain.  Since the 16th century, Great Britain has had an established church, led by the Monarch as Supreme Governor. Under the Act of Supremacy and Act of Uniformity passed by Parliament under Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I, all office-holders had to swear an oath recognizing the Queen as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and individuals were fined for not attending church weekly (that is, at a parish of the Church of England). Further, the Test Act of 1673 required office-holders to deny transubstantiation, a staple of the Catholic Faith. The Test Act of 1678 required all members of Parliament, with some exceptions, to deny the Mass, invocation of saints, and transubstantiation.

All of this demonstrates that the Founders were rebelling against a specific intersection of church and state. They were rebelling against an established state church, of which membership was coerced by force of arms, and in which alternate faiths were punished or denied office. This is the thrust of the First Amendment; it was feared that America would follow the mold of England (or Scotland with the Kirk) and have a mandatory state church. It seems an interpolation into the history of our more secular time to say that the Founders were concerned with the irreligious and atheists. While that may be desirable, explicit atheism, especially in the public sphere, is largely a product of later times. It seems a stretch to say that they had the freedom not to worship, rather than freedom to worship, in mind when crafting our Constitution. 

Despite this, if one is not of an originalist bent, the FFRF’s position is still redeemable if modern court decisions espouse the freedom from worship path. However, this is not the case. In American Legion v. American Humanist Association, the Supreme Court decided that the Bladensburg Cross, a symbol of memorializing fallen WWI soldiers, could remain despite being an unmistakably Christian symbol.  In the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “The cross is undoubtedly a Christian symbol, but that fact should not blind us to everything else that the Bladensburg Cross has come to represent.” Here, religion is at least accepted in the public sphere, provided there are other legitimate reasons for its existence. This already discounts the view that the Constitution demands that religion be limited to the private sphere. However, the Town of Greece v. Galloway goes further, where the Supreme Court ruled that chaplains could open legislative sessions with sectarian prayer in the town. Here, religion is explicitly allowed to intersect with the public sphere. Interpreting the Constitution to mean that we must excise religion from the body politic like a tumor is simply wishful thinking. 

Now, it should be noted that the position I have laid out is a far cry from the religious theocracy that the FRFF is afraid of.  My position is merely that religion can’t be fully removed from the public sphere. Public prayer and religious symbols are acceptable in this Republic. However, what the FRFF is afraid of is the capture of state power by Christianity. If one looks at their “Legal Challenges” page, all of the challenges which are against a specific religion are against Christianity.  They fear both oppression and bad policy. They fear the oppression that a state religion may bring.  One need only look at history to see their fear. They also fear religiously-motivated policy. After all, if one doesn’t believe in God, then the Catholic Church’s teachings on a whole host of issues are misguided at best. To allow for such policy is to deny women reproductive rights, all to coddle those who foolishly believe in an Old Man in the Sky. 

However,  there are good practical reasons to allow for religiously-motivated politics. In its political nature, religion is a mechanism for forming beliefs. Many people take political actions for explicitly religious reasons, from abortion to prison reform to public prayer. To cordon religion off from politics, the government must assert that it is categorically unfit for forming beliefs. It is important to note that there is a difference between believing in something and thinking it is valid. For example, as a religious person, I think any non-theistic formulation of the world is categorically wrong. However, it is a valid way of generating political positions. As such, beliefs formed as a result of atheism should be welcome in the public sphere. To separate church and state in a way that groups like the FRFF would like, we would have to say that religion is so invalid as a way of forming beliefs that no reasonable person would use it to form opinions. This seems like an overly strong position from the non-theists.

Beyond this attempt to box out those with different priors, it seems odd to single out religion as an improper grounding. There are plenty of people who may form their beliefs wrongly in the eyes of some, yet they should be able to participate in the political process. Any pluralistic society must allow for various first principles, even if one does not personally agree with them. 

Lastly, it seems a concerning proposition to have the government adjudicate which beliefs are acceptable. At the risk of communist-baiting, this sounds like requiring Leninism from all of our voters. If we are to say that religion has no space in the public sphere, the government is necessarily adjudicating what beliefs can be expressed there. It sounds like the elected deciding their electorate. If the government can decide who is valid in a democratic society, that seems like one is begging to disenfranchise those with whom they disagree. Such a position is authoritarian and unfit for a liberal society.  People don’t lose their voice merely because they are wrong. Even if we accept all of the FFRF’s premises, the conclusion would not be to ban religion in politics. After all, the point of democracy is that the people get to decide, not “the people get to decide but only if they make the right decision.” To defend their position, the FRFF would have to claim religious people are so wrong that they do not deserve to have their voices heard. No matter their professed fidelity to the Constitution, such a position seems wholly un-American to me.