Tag Archives: separation of church and state


In a comment a couple of days ago, Sharon referenced a truly appalling situation in Floyd County, Indiana. She’d received a request for a donation from the Indiana Sheriff’s Association. The newsletter accompanying the request profiled a program instituted by the sheriff of Floyd County: Residents Encountering Christ. The newsletter described a 3 day retreat, reporting that Sheriff Bush “went in and talked to inmates, sharing his faith and encouraging them in theirs. In all, 41 inmates were baptized during this event. Local news media took note of the program’s success.”

As Sharon wrote, “I’m not sure which I find more appalling, that a law enforcement officer uses his position of power to proselytize to inmates or that local ‘journalists’ consider baptisms achieved under these conditions to be  ‘a success.'”

I am equally appalled.

Law enforcement officers assume an obligation to abide by the Constitution. There is a very lengthy string of  legal precedents confirming the lawlessness–and cluelessness– of Sheriff Bush’s behavior. 

That cluelessness extended to the news coverage.According to the local News and Tribune (paywall),

On July 24th, 41 Inmates at the Floyd County Jail that volunteered to take part in Residents Encounter Christ (REC) were baptized. What a powerful moment to witness! 

One has to be truly naive–or blissfully unaware of the reality of power relationships–to believe that inmates “volunteered.” (As numerous women can attest, when someone with authority to make your life miserable “requests” some “accommodation,” it’s hard to refuse.) 

There is absolutely no legal argument supporting Sheriff Bush’s appalling conduct. Numerous Supreme Court opinions have echoed Justice Black’s words in Engel v. Vitale:

The constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least mean that, in this country, it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government.

That case considered the constitutionality of a rule promulgated by the New York State Board of Regents, authorizing public schools to hold a short, “voluntary” prayer at the beginning of each school day. The Court held that state laws permitting prayer “must be struck down as a violation of the Establishment Clause because that prayer was composed by governmental officials as a part of a governmental program to further religious beliefs.”

It is true–and very troubling–that the current Supreme Court has eroded previous First Amendment jurisprudence. But even those regrettable decisions don’t come close to making Sheriff Bush’s activities permissible. Perhaps someone should share these paragraphs from Justice Black’s decision with the Sheriff.

By the time of the adoption of the Constitution, our history shows that there was a widespread awareness among many Americans of the dangers of a union of Church and State. These people knew, some of them from bitter personal experience, that one of the greatest dangers to the freedom of the individual to worship in his own way lay in the Government’s placing its official stamp of approval upon one particular kind of prayer or one particular form of religious services. They knew the anguish, hardship and bitter strife that could come when zealous religious groups struggled with one another to obtain the Government’s stamp of approval from each King, Queen, or Protector that came to temporary power.

The Constitution was intended to avert a part of this danger by leaving the government of this country in the hands of the people, rather than in the hands of any monarch. But this safeguard was not enough. Our Founders were no more willing to let the content of their prayers and their privilege of praying whenever they pleased be influenced by the ballot box than they were to let these vital matters of personal conscience depend upon the succession of monarchs. The First Amendment was added to the Constitution to stand as a guarantee that neither the power nor the prestige of the Federal Government would be used to control, support or influence the kinds of prayer the American people can say – that the people’s religions must not be subjected to the pressures of government for change each time a new political administration is elected to office. Under that Amendment’s prohibition against governmental establishment of religion, as reinforced by the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment, government in this country, be it state or federal, is without power to prescribe by law any particular form of prayer which is to be used as an official prayer in carrying on any program of governmentally sponsored religious activity.

Sponsorship of religious activity by a government official is unconstitutional.

Floyd County has a Sheriff who is either ignorant of the Constitution or willing to ignore it. In either case, he’s unfit for public office.



What It’s All About

Remember that old song, “What’s it all about, Alfie?” The melody and refrain were running through my mind as I read Tuesday’s “Letter from an American” from Heather Cox Richardson.

One paragraph in that Letter in particular really summed up the contemporary American–and global–dilemma. Forget, if possible, the daily eruptions that are evidence of a diseased polity–the crazed “representatives” doing anything but “serving” in Congress; the almost daily mass shootings; the bizarre behaviors of  state legislatures (and not just in Florida and Texas)…and the multitude of other examples.

Focus instead on the underlying dilemma, an existential contest that Richardson says is between liberalism and autocracy but might just as aptly be identified as a contest between good and evil. She began by reminding readers of the Trump agenda that plays to the GOP/MAGA base.

He offered its members the anti-Black, anti-immigrant, and antiabortion measures it craved, in exchange for utter commitment to his leadership. His drive for authoritarianism dovetailed with a religious movement to create a new ideology for the Republican Party, one that explicitly rejects democracy.

That argument, articulated most clearly by Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, is that the secular principles of liberal democracy—equality before the law, free speech, freedom to go to church or not, academic inquiry, a free press, immigration, companies that can make decisions based on markets rather than morality—destroy virtue by tearing down the sexual and religious guardrails of traditional society. In order to bring that virtue back, right-wing thinkers argue, the government must defend religion and self-sacrifice (although it’s hard to miss that they’re looking for other people to make those sacrifices, not themselves). 

Last week, on May 4 and 5, the Conservative Political Action Conference met in Budapest for the second time, and once again, Orbán delivered the keynote address. The theme was the uniting of the radical right across national boundaries. “Come back, Mr President,” Orbán said of Trump’s 2024 presidential bid. “Make America great again and bring us peace.” Orbán claimed his suppression of LGBTQ+ rights, academic freedom, and the media is a model for the world. 

(Un)representative Paul Gosar (R-AZ) called Orban, “ a beacon.” Richardson reminds us that the Americans who celebrate this ideology are those who routinely attack immigrants, LGBTQ Americans, the media, reproductive rights, and education.

Florida, led by governor Ron DeSantis, has been out front on these issues, but other Republican-dominated states are following suit. Eager to stay at the head of the “movement,” Trump recently claimed that universities are “dominated by marxist maniacs & lunatics” and vowed to bring them under control of the radical right. “He will impose real standards on American colleges and universities,” his website says, “to include defending the American tradition and Western civilization.” 

Needless to say, DeSantis–and Abbott, and the culture warriors in Red State legislatures very much including Indiana’s–have a very distorted picture of American tradition and Western civilization, one diametrically opposed to the expressed values of the nation’s founders.

The decision to hold the Right-wing CPAC convention in Budapest–for the second time!–is chilling enough, but the fact that Diego Morales–Indiana’s Secretary of State not only attended that gathering, but spoke at it, was a reminder of just how firm a grip Indiana’s MAGA Republicans have on the state. Morales joined Tucker Carlson (via video), unsuccessful Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, and other members of American and international Right. 

I’ve previously written about Morales, an election denier who should never have won his race against an infinitely superior candidate, Destiny Wells. (When he was nominated, James Briggs–then of the Indianapolis Star–called him “so broadly unacceptable that the selection must be setting some kind of record for political ineptitude.” Briggs evidently forgot that, in Indiana, unacceptable is now synonymous with “Republican.”)

Morales wraps himself in “conservative” rhetoric, but today’s Right is anything but traditionally conservative. I’m old enough to remember when “conservative” meant conserving the liberties protected by the Bill of Rights and the principles that Richardson correctly labels as inherent in liberal democracy—”equality before the law, free speech, freedom to go to church or not, academic inquiry, a free press, immigration, companies that can make decisions based on markets rather than morality.”

Those principles are what next year’s elections are all about. And as I observed in the book Morton Marcus and I recently published, I am reasonably confident that most American women (and a significant number of men who care about us)  will go to the polls to endorse those foundational principles, joined by voters disgusted by gun fetishists’ mischaracterization of the 2d Amendment, and by still others fed up with Republican refusal to make the rich pay a fair share.

That, “Alfie,” is what it’s “all about.”


About That Wall Of Separation

According to the New York Times, Eric Adams, current Mayor of New York City, opened a recent talk with an old chestnut:“When we took prayers out of schools, guns came into schools.” Not only is that presumed cause-and-effect demonstrably false, Adam’s speech–in which he dismissed separation of church and state–betrayed an appalling lack of constitutional knowledge (and provoked enormous criticism).

Back in 2004, I posted “Why Separation is Good for Church and Necessary for State.” It seems appropriate to repeat that explanation, and remind ourselves that religious “culture war” issues were already hot some twenty years ago. (Warning: this was originally a speech, so it’s longer than my usual daily post.)


I’ll start with James Madison, my favorite Founder and the one whose views on religious liberty dominated the Constitutional Convention. Madison based his understanding of natural rights and the role of the state on Locke’s social compact. As one scholar has noted, because the exercise of religion requires that each person follow his own conscience, it is a particular kind of natural right, an inalienable natural right. Since opinions and beliefs can be shaped only by individual consideration of evidence that that particular individual finds persuasive, no one can really impose opinions on any one else. Unlike property, or even speech, religious liberty cannot be sold, or alienated, so it does not become part of the social compact. The state must remain noncognizant of its citizens’ religions–meaning that it simply has no jurisdiction over religion. A just state must be blind to religion. It can’t use religion to classify citizens, and it can neither privilege nor penalize citizens on account of religion.

If you listen to the rhetoric around church-state issues today, you would never know that the “wall of separation” contemplated by Jefferson and Madison was seen as an important protection for both religion and government. But it was—and for some very sound reasons. 

This view of Madison’s is a far cry from the interpretation favored by some of our current Justices—an interpretation sometimes called “nonpreferentialism.”

Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island, is most often cited for the religious view of the importance of separation; he was the originator of the phrase “a wall of separation”—a full 150 years before Thomas Jefferson used it. Historians sometimes overlook the importance 18th and 19th century Christians placed upon the doctrine of liberty of conscience—what they called “soul freedom.” Such views were most strongly held by Mennonites, Quakers and Baptists, but they were also part of the beliefs of colonial era Episcopalians, Methodists and Presbyterians.

John Leland was a traveling evangelical Baptist with a strong view of the individual’s relationship to God, the inviolability of the individual conscience, and the limited nature of human knowledge. He wrote, “religion is a matter between God and individuals; religious opinions of men not being the objects of civil government, nor in any way under its control.” He also wrote that “the state has no right or leave to concern itself with the beliefs of an individual or that individual’s right to expound those beliefs…The state is to maintain order, not to judge right and wrong.” And here’s my favorite Leland quote: “The very tendency of religious establishments by human law is to make some hypocrites and the rest fools; they are calculated to destroy those very virtues that religion is designed to build up…Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of mathematics.”

Were there people who lived at the same time as Madison and Leland who felt otherwise? Of course. But it was the position of Madison and Leland that prevailed; it was their view of the proper relationship (which might more accurately be described as the proper lack of a relationship) between church and state that became part of our constitutional structure.

Today, in addition to rampant historical revisionism, there are two common justifications for allowing government to take cognizance of religion—arguments that are mutually exclusive, although often offered by the same people. They are sometimes called the instrumental argument, and the ceremonial justification.

You are all familiar with the instrumental argument; it is best summarized by a bumper sticker that was popular a few years ago: something along the lines of “When prayer was removed from the classroom, guns and teenage pregnancy came in.” A good example of the instrumental approach was offered by Tom Delay, right after the Columbine school shootings. DeLay said “I got an email this morning that said it all. A student writes, ‘Dear God, why didn’t you stop the shootings at Columbine?’ and God writes back ‘Dear student: I would have, but I wasn’t allowed in.’”

This naive belief that exposure to a denatured and generic religion in the classroom will make students behave is exactly the same justification given for current efforts to post the Ten Commandments—if people see “Thou shalt not kill” on the wall of a public building, well, they won’t kill. (For complex theological reasons I do not understand, this evidently doesn’t work if the building is privately owned.) Unfortunately, available evidence does not support this belief in the magical powers of religious iconography. The United States is by far the most religious of all the western industrialized nations—and we are also the most violent. There are few—if any—atheists in our prisons. Folks in the Bible Belt pray more—and kill more. And as Stephen Chapman noted in a column following DeLay’s comments, school shootings have not occurred in hotbeds of secularism like Berkeley or Cambridge or New York City, but in towns where Norman Rockwell and James Dobson would feel right at home: Paducah, KY, Jonesboro, ARK, and Littleton, CO.

The reason these proponents of government-sponsored prayer want government to make us pray is because they are convinced that in the absence of state coercion, we won’t. That’s why they object to non-mandatory, private baccalaureate services in lieu of prayer at high school graduations. Such baccalaureate services, which used to be the norm, permit meaningful prayer for those who wish to participate. So what’s the objection? Tellingly, it is that such services are voluntary—that those who “need” to prayer won’t come. The folks making this argument know what prayer is good for you and me, and are willing to use the power of the state to make us participate in a ceremony that includes that prayer.

The instrumental argument for supporting public religion and prayer is basically “religion is good for people, so the state should impose it.” The ceremonial defense of public religion is that it has no effect at all–that it’s meaningless. This is the argument that prayers at graduations and similar venues are merely “traditional” and “ceremonial.” People of faith—quite justifiably—find such characterizations deeply offensive. As a minister friend of mine used to say, he doen’t pray “to whom it may concern.” No religion I know of sanctions the notion that prayer is merely ceremonial, void of particularistic significance and useful only as an archaic (albeit charming) tradition.

The Founders of this nation believed that government neutrality in matters of religious belief—Madison’s noncognizance—was essential if government was to be seen as legitimate. They also believed that state neutrality was necessary if genuine religious sentiment was to flourish. You only need look at nations without a First Amendment to see how right they were; countries like England have seen state-sponsored religions degenerate into pleasant rituals without vitality; on the other end of the spectrum, nations like Saudi Arabia and Iran have employed the force of the state in the service of religious conformity. Both alternatives are instructive.

Let me just conclude these remarks by commenting on a couple of current manifestations of America’s religious culture wars: the President’s Faith-Based Initiative, and efforts to pass state and federal constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.

As many of you know, I recently completed a 3 year study of “faith-based” contracting— I think the questions raised by the President’s Initiative point to the wisdom of Madison’s insistence upon government noncognizance of religion, and to the accuracy of Leland’s observations.

Charitable Choice and the President’s Faith-Based Initiative are efforts to increase the numbers of “faith-based” social service providers contracting with the state. In order to accomplish that, government agencies must first define religion, or “faith.” (We all saw how well that worked with conscientious objectors.) I should note here, by the way, that the term “faith-based” is itself illustrative of the problem. I’m sure the phrase was intended to be more inclusive (and perhaps less alarming ) than the word “religion,” but it betrays an unconscious, and rather telling, bias. “Faith based” is a very Protestant religious concept. Catholicism and Judaism, among others, are “works based” religions.

Of course, government has contracted with religious organizations ever since it has provided social services, so the first question that arises is: How do the faith organizations the President proposes to recruit differ from Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, the Salvation Army, and government’s many other long-time religious partners?

A much more troubling question comes next: Since the effort to recruit new faith partners has not been accompanied by additional funding for social services, it is hard not to see Charitable Choice as an effort to shift funds from one set of religious providers to another –presumably, from government’s traditional religious partners (who generally operate in accordance with applicable professional and constitutional norms) to more evangelical providers focused upon “personal transformation” of clients. If new FBOs do bid for contracts in any significant numbers, the competition for limited dollars will create precisely the sort of conflict among religious groups that the First Amendment was intended to avoid.

The First Amendment does not prevent government from doing business with faith organizations, but that doesn’t mean that any program run by a religious provider will pass constitutional muster.  There is a constitutionally significant distinction between programs that are offered by a religious provider or in a religious setting, and programs in which religious observance or dogma are integral to service delivery. Failure to understand that distinction invites the very mischief that so worried Madison and Leland.

Despite the rhetoric emanating from the White House, the question is not whether government should partner with religious organizations to provide social services.  It always has, and undoubtedly always will.  The question is “when are such partnerships appropriate and how should they be structured and monitored?”  Similarly, the question is not whether religious or secular organizations are better; it is “what organizational characteristics are most likely to predict successful program delivery?”
If there is one truism our study confirmed, it is that simpleminded confidence in the power of undefined “faith” is misplaced. No armies of compassion are rushing in to relieve government of its responsibilities for social welfare, and faith has not provided a short-cut to self-sufficiency.  As the head of one faith-based agency puts it, “Most poor people have all the religion in the world.  What they don’t have is job skills.” To which observation both Madison and Leland might have added: and government’s responsibility is limited to providing them with the job skills.

If the effort to portray “faith” as an important element in service delivery is misplaced, the war being waged against gays and lesbians is a frontal attack on two of the most fundamental principles of our constitutional system, equal protection of the laws and separation of church and state.

With all of the rhetoric about government needing to “protect” marriage, we sometimes forget that government cannot and does not sanctify marital relationships. Churches, Mosques and synagogues join people in religious unions; the state merely confirms those relationships for purposes of securing the legal incidents of that partnership status. If you are married in a civil ceremony, you have a civil marriage—meaning that the state recognizes your legal partnership for purposes of enforcing the obligations you have assumed.  Prohibiting state recognition of same-sex partnerships—many of which have, in fact, been blessed by a church or synagogue—denies gay couples access to 1008 legal rights that heterosexual citizens enjoy. Those include the right to be appointed as a guardian of an ailing or injured partner, the right to take family leave, the right to legally parent a non-biological child, and the right to half of the partnership’s accumulated property if the relationship dissolves. Same sex couples pay more taxes than married couples, because they aren’t entitled to spousal gift and estate tax exemptions and deductions. They can’t seek damages for a partner’s wrongful death. There are hundreds more—legal and civil rights enjoyed by any heterosexual married for two days or two months, but denied to gays who have been partners for 30 or 50 years.

The justifications for imposing these legal disabilities are virtually all religious, and rooted in the doctrines of some, but certainly not all, conservative denominations. Despite efforts to pretend there are secular policy concerns at stake, all one need do is look at the justifications offered to see their true nature:      

We are told that gays should not be allowed to marry because homosexuality is immoral. But all religions teach that rape and murder are immoral—and Indiana allows rapists and murderers to marry.
We are told that marriage and sex are for procreation. So where are the bills prohibiting marriages between old people and sterile people?
We are told that gay parenting is harmful to children, but there is absolutely no credible research confirming that harm.
We are told that recognition of gay unions will undermine the institution of marriage. But we are not told why that is so, and we were told the same thing about interracial marriage, and about allowing women to own property and vote.

At the recent rally in Indianapolis, the crowd was told that marriage is for biological parents and their natural-born children. Those of us with stepchildren we love every bit as much as we love our biological children, those who have adopted children they adore, found that characterization both inaccurate and offensive. 

We all understand that these measures are not efforts to protect families—they are efforts to privilege some families at the expense of others. They aren’t even about religion and morality—they are about whose religion, whose morality. That is why the issue is so important to so many of us who are not gay. It is because we know that when government gets the right to decide whose beliefs are acceptable, no one’s beliefs are safe.  

What happens when government imposes the religious views of some Americans on the rest of us?

First of all, government itself loses legitimacy, because it is acting contrary to the rule of law and norms of neutrality and equality. The rule of law requires that we constrain and limit the discretion of government officials. Every time we give those officials added discretion—to choose this religious service provider over that one, to send this welfare recipient to that religious program rather than this secular one—we increase the opportunity for abuse of discretion. We move further from the rule of law, and closer to the arbitrary exercise of power by man.  Furthermore, political conflict intensifies, making it more difficult for government to do the jobs it is supposed to do. If you doubt the accuracy of that observation, a quick look at Congress and the Indiana General Assembly should confirm the point.

Second, religious liberty is compromised, and with it, religion itself. Beliefs not freely chosen are by definition not authentic. The imposition of religious observances, or the passage of laws privileging religious beliefs, tends to increase the public’s skepticism about all religion.

Finally, society itself loses. Religious disputes are among the most bitter and divisive of conflicts. The current, highly contested political debate about “values” has been terribly corrosive of our national identity, and harmful to our sense of national purpose. We need to minimize the culture wars, not add fuel to the fire. The way to minimize conflict is to listen to the logic of James Madison and John Leland. The way to add fuel to the fire is to let the State make the religious beliefs of some Americans the law of the land.

Christian Nationalism

I frequently inveigh against Christian Nationalism without explaining exactly what it is. In the wake of Marjorie Taylor Green’s recent declaration identifying herself as a Christian Nationalist, I decided I should be more explicit about what that label means–because it doesn’t simply indicate a religious identity.

As the Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty recently wrote,

Christian nationalism is a political ideology and cultural framework that merges Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s promise of religious freedom. It relies heavily on a false narrative of America as a “Christian nation,” founded by Christians in order to privilege Christianity. This mythical history betrays the work of the framers to create a federal government that would remain neutral when it comes to religion, neither promoting nor denigrating it — a deliberate break with the state-established religions of the colonies.

Though not new, Christian nationalism has been exploited in recent years by politicians like former President Donald Trump to further an “us vs. them” mentality and send a message that only Christians can be “real” Americans.

An article in The Week pointed to the substantial role played by Christian Nationalists in the insurrection on January 6th. As one observer reported  “Crosses were everywhere that day in D.C., on flags and flagpoles, on signs and clothes, around necks, and erected above the crowd,”  Bible verses were plentiful in the crowd, and a number of rioters actually paused for prayer during the attack. One rioter recorded herself justifying her participation by saying  “We are a godly country, and we are founded on godly principles. And if we do not have our country, nothing else matters.”

A 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center identified 77 percent of Republican respondents as “church-state integrationists” who hold a variety of views “consistent” with Christian nationalism. That might be overstating things somewhat. A 2017 survey found that one-in-five Americans hold such views. The scholars at Political Behavior found that “support for the Capitol attacks is a minority position among any slice of the American religious landscape.” But they also noted that 17.7 percent “of white weekly churchgoers fall into the joint top quartile of justification of violence, Christian nationalist beliefs, perceived victimhood, white identity, and support for QAnon.” That percentage — while relatively small — “would represent millions of individuals.”

The article noted that Christian Nationalism is gaining an “increasing foothold ” in Republican politics. Greene and  Boebert are two of the more explicit proponents of Christian nationalism, but less well known members of the party are also adherents. “Doug Mastriano — a former Army officer who chartered buses to ferry protesters to Washington D.C. on Jan. 6, and who has declared the separation of church and state a “myth” —  is the GOP nominee for governor in Pennsylvania, and is now running a close race with his Democratic opponent.”

What is truly terrifying is that Christian Nationalism is being normalized. Republicans who shared the ideology  but previously denied the label are increasingly willing to admit to it: as the linked article notes, ” Marjorie Taylor Greene might have made news by openly embracing the term, but she might not be that unusual.”

As the Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty wrote,

I care about dismantling Christian nationalism both because I’m a practicing Christian and because I’m a patriotic American — and no, those identities are not the same. As Christians, we can’t allow Greene, Boebert or Trump to distort our faith without a fight.

We must speak loudly when our faith is used as a political tool, we must uproot it from our own churches and communities and we must form alliances with religious minorities and the nonreligious — who suffer the impact of Christian nationalism the most.

Religion, and Christianity in particular, has flourished in America not because of government aid or favoritism, but for the opposite reason: religion’s freedom from government control. Government involvement in religious affairs doesn’t aid the free exercise of religion. And as Christians, we are called to love our neighbors rather than make them feel unwelcome in their own country…

Christian lawmakers don’t need to erase their faith from politics. My fellow Baptist, Georgia Democrat Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock, has modeled what it looks like for a pastor to serve in Congress without insisting on a privileged place for Christianity in law and society….

It’s not just Christian political leaders that need to do better, it’s all of us. Earlier this summer, I joined a group of prominent Christian leaders in launching the Christians Against Christian Nationalism campaign. More than 25,000 Christians have joined the campaign as we seek to elevate an alternative Christian public witness.

The Christian Nationalist takeover of one of America’s major political parties poses an enormous threat to us all.




A Sword Or A Shield?

Religion has been in the news a lot lately, which probably shouldn’t surprise us. When the times we live in are tumultuous–and I certainly think this era qualifies–people cling to and defend their “eternal verities.”

Of course, that raises an interesting question: what, exactly, qualifies as religion? I think the “eternal verity” descriptor gets at something (excuse the phrase) fundamental: an unshakable belief system based largely on faith in matters that are not susceptible to scientific verification. Political ideologies–including tribal bigotries–fall within that definition.

Unshakable and unprovable beliefs, of course, are the source of a great deal of mischief–and often, tragedy. I’ve posted previously about the tensions within evangelical circles, about some Christians’ insistence that Muslims and Jews cannot be “real Americans,” about the ongoing religious debates over reproductive rights, and (more frequently) about the concerns of America’s founders that led to the religion clauses of the First Amendment. 

With respect to those concerns, an observation by Barney Frank during a recent interview comes to mind.(I’ve loved Barney Frank ever since he held a Town Hall during the fight over the Affordable Care Act, and responded to a looney-tune woman comparing Obama to Hitler and the ACA to Nazism by asking her “On what planet do you spend most of your time?”)

In the interview, Frank was asked the following question: “Some on the left have expressed concern that the 6-3 conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court could erode LGBTQ rights in the name of religious liberty. Are you concerned at all about this?”

Frank responded with his trademark rhetorical acuity. “Yes I am. They’re not going to undo marriage. But I do worry about entities that get public tax money to perform services—they should not in my judgment be allowed to exclude people because of some religious disapproval of their sexual practices. It’s the sword versus the shield. The shield, in legal terms, is a doctrine that prevents other people from intruding on you. A sword is used to intrude on others. And while religious liberty should be a shield, there are concerns that people might make it a sword.”

That verbal picture–a sword or a shield–is an excellent way to approach the First Amendment, and not simply the religion clauses. 

The Amendment was intended to protect an individual’s right to believe pretty much anything (not necessarily to act on those beliefs, however) and to try to convince others to believe those things too. It was also intended to prevent government from getting involved by putting a thumb on the scale, so to speak, or imposing the beliefs of some Americans on others. It was–in Frank’s felicitous phrase–intended to provide individual citizens with a shield and to prevent majorities from using government as a sword.

The problem is, we have millions of people who have “religion” in the sense I defined it above. We have cults, traditional religious affiliations, conspiracy theories, political ideologies of both the Left and Right…in short, we have veritable armies of people convinced of the superior righteousness of their own belief systems. If you need evidence, examine what has been called “cancel culture,” the effort to ostracize people who hold opposing views–not to enter into debate with them, but to shut them down, eject them from the public conversation. (That effort is most definitely not limited to the Left, despite Rightwing efforts to claim otherwise.) 

For numerous reasons, the law cannot classify all these systems as religions for purposes of the First Amendment. That practical reality means that the label “religious” does confer a considerable advantage on beliefs that define themselves in that more limited fashion.

When it comes to traditional religion, Pew recently shared a bit of positive news about the sword and shield finding a significant majority of Americans want government to enforce separation of Church and State. I wonder what a similar study would find about our current commitment to Free Speech–especially in light of recent revelations about Facebook and other social media platforms.

What’s that Chinese curse? “May you live in interesting times…”