Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
This is the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, one of the most broadly interpreted–and hotly contested–parts of the U.S. Constitution.
The Establishment Clause was initially interpreted to mean the U.S. Congress only. Many of the states had already adopted official churches. However, by the early 19th century–when many of the founding fathers were still involved in governance–the interpretation had already been broadened to include elements of state and local government. However, the Clause didn’t formally include the states until the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1947 ruling on Emerson vs. The Board of Education. The ruling echoed writings by Thomas Jefferson on the subject in which he envisioned a “wall of separation” between the government and the church. It makes sense. They had just rebelled against a Christian theocracy; it stands to reason that they wouldn’t want to re-establish the same system here in America.
Like many of the ideals expressed in the Constitution, our interpretation of the church/state relationship has evolved. Both sides have positions rooted in the origins of our nation. The real question is, do we want to progress with those ideals or go backwards?
This is where Conservatives and strict Constitutionalists miss the point. The greatness of the U.S. Constitution is its adaptability to the needs of the times while maintaining core values regarding liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, pursuit of happiness, et al; not because it was perfect as-ratified in 1788, long before the automobile, the airplane, the nuclear bomb, modern medicine, and the Internet. Remember, the Constitution also allowed for slavery and counted slaves as 3/5 of a person.
But then Christian fundamentalism has its roots in the vestiges of slave culture. In the 1960s Republicans courted southern whites enraged over the Civil Rights Movement as part of the Southern Strategy. Republicans positioned themselves not simply as proponents of Christianity, but rather as defenders of Christian supremacy. This is not about protecting peoples’ right to worship; it’s about imposing their particular brand of Christianity on all Americans.
This brand of Christian fundamentalism is called Dominionism, the belief that secular government must be eliminated in favor of theocracy. It’s basically fascism toting a crucifix. Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, and Sarah Palin number among the nationally known Republicans who subscribe to this theory.
…Which brings us back to the Establishment Clause.
I believe that, much like the issue of slavery, the Founding Fathers were not stauncher in their enforcement of the Establishment Clause in the interests of pragmatism. It would have been detrimental to the birth of the new nation to embroil it in a battle over economics and religion.
Yet regardless of how we might interpret the Establishment Clause, what is not debatable is that the Founders did not intend for us to be a theocracy, Christian or otherwise. How do we know this? The Constitution itself. All the framers needed to do was state, “These United States of America shall be a theocratic union…” or ” The official religion of these United States shall be…” or something to that effect. The fact that such language is notably absent from the Constitution speaks volumes about the Founding Fathers’ intentions.
Of course, there are the words of the Founding Fathers themselves:
“And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But may we hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors.” —Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823
“Let it simply be asked, where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.” –George Washington, Farewell Address
“The priesthood have, in all ancient nations, nearly monopolized learning. And ever since the Reformation, when or where has existed a Protestant or dissenting sect who would tolerate A FREE INQUIRY? … But touch a solemn truth in collision with a dogma of a sect, though capable of the clearest proof, and you will find you have disturbed a nest, and the hornets will swarm about your eyes…and fly into your face…” — John Adams, letter to John Taylor
“It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”–Thomas Jefferson
The Christian Right mistakenly argues that our nation’s founders were all Christians (much less wanted a Christian theocracy). Many did believe. Many others, including, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams were Deists. It stands to reason then, that they would want a nation in which all people were free to believe–or not believe–as they choose. It was a concept unique in the world at the time and which many Christian fundamentalists have difficulty comprehending.
Obviously, faith can be a guide, but it cannot be the basis by which laws are made. That would, by definition, make us a theocracy, no different structurally than Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
This is where the Republican party bears responsibility. In courting the Christian fundamentalist vote they have perpetuated a dangerous element in politics. And the Republican leadership supported fundamentalism not because they shared their deep, albeit hateful, type of faith. They did it to acquire a devoted, factually ignorant, and malleable voting block, one conditioned to accept cloudy answers and fall in line with a simple call to faith.
They set discriminatory and oppressive policies, cherry-picked in the interests of their own insecurities, and shroud them in religion. They claim their purposes are noble; faith is personal and sacred; and to challenge their beliefs is disrespectful and taboo. In fact, we are the cultural assailants because we won’t let them impose their beliefs on us.
On top of all of that, the most terrifying thing about these Christian extremists is their longing for the Rapture. Call it Armageddon, call it Judgement Day, they yearn for the destruction of this world because they believe God’s Kingdom awaits them on the other side. True, the Christian extremists controlling the Republican party want to fundamentally change our form of government. But their ultimate goal is a Holy War. Therefore, it is incumbent upon both people of reason and reasonable faith to join together to not only oppose Republican Dominionism but to eradicate its influence from American politics. This is not about abortion rights. It’s not about gay marriage or the social safety net or U.S. foreign policy.
This is about what kind of America we want to live in: a Christian theocracy based on a narrow interpretation of the Bible, or a nation of laws based on reason, liberty, and equality of opportunity for everyone. We have to decide and then fight for it.
Otherwise we are going to reap the whirlwind.
This is the end of Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous. It’s a bit too broad and propagandized, but hyperbole aside, it’s accurate about a point many people don’t want to talk about.