The mark of Generation Z is one of activism, diversity and new ideas. In the battle for the separation of church and state, a foundational American principle on which many other freedoms rest, it’s important to bring the young into the fold, using our fresh perspectives to spearhead the next generation of First Amendment activism. That’s why, for the rest of the summer, you’ll be hearing from me here at the “Wall of Separation” blog.
My name is Ethan Magistro, and I’m a philosophy major at Princeton University. I’ve spent much of my time at Princeton reading the works of the early-modern rationalists: thinkers like Baruch Spinoza, an early advocate for religious tolerance who saw pluralism as a practical way to maintain a stable society. Spinozian ideas of pluralism found their way to John Locke, and, further down the line, to Hannah Arendt. These philosophers understood the political realm as something not bound up or enmeshed with religion, but instead existing in its own separate sphere. In other words, they’d be fans of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The most exciting part of philosophy is to walk away from the books and investigate how philosophical ideas have made their way off the page and into society. Americans United is a shining star of theory in practice, as the group has unfailingly put the philosophical tradition of the separation of church and state into action for nearly 75 years. What drew me to Americans United is its eloquent vision of a politics unbounded by religion, but respectful of people of all religions and none. Americans United understands that we all have a right to practice any, or no, religion, and that faith has a home in many lives as a source of “civic morality,” as Alexis de Tocqueville famously put it. Religion’s home, however, is not in the political realm.
While religion can inspire civic morality, political unity, according to Arendt, comes from our shared political institutions. Because of that, pluralism and multiculturalism are inherent to a successful republic. The United States is at its best when it embraces the contradictions of pluralism, inclusivity and equality without exception. Of course, we recently lived through an administration that did the exact opposite, scorning the very notion of multiculturalism in favor of religious extremism. That is a sobering reminder that First Amendment protections are only guaranteed so long as they are continuously defended.
That defense falls upon the shoulders of young activists and thinkers as much as on the old guard. The fight for the separation of church and state needs to hear our voices and our stories the most, because the battles being waged now will ultimately impact us the most. That’s why, for the next couple of months, I’ll be writing some blog posts for “The Wall of Separation.”
Now, more than ever, we need more people with visionary ideas championing the separation of church and state. Although the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia was a narrow one, it made clear that religious extremists are still eager to try and scrap church-state protections.
While always a keystone issue, attacks on the separation of church and state have become more contentious with wider repercussions in recent years. American United’s ongoing fight to preserve the wall of separation may be challenging, but to quote Spinoza, “[A]ll things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” During my time here, I plan on highlighting all the excellent, and difficult, things Americans United accomplishes.