This issue of Church & State went to press before Election Day, so as these words were written, we had no way of knowing who would win the election. But there’s one thing we do know: No matter what happens, the wall of separation between church and state is going to need a lot of repair work in the years to come.
The past few years have been difficult. We’ve seen a barrage of executive orders, administrative changes and policy proposals that have undermined the separation of religion and government. At the same time, courts are becoming increasingly hostile to that foundational principle.
These attacks on church-state separation come during a time when America’s religious landscape is changing. As many scholars have noted, growing numbers of Americans are drifting away from formal religious worship. It’s not that Americans are embracing nonbelief (although some are); rather, they are choosing to experience religious life and spirituality on their own, outside the walls of houses of worship.
Americans are also experimenting with individualized worship. They may blend traditions or create religious experiences that are informed by existing groups yet not formally align with them.
Our founders intended for Americans to have this great breadth of religious freedom. However, there have always been those among us who oppose Americans having too much religious freedom, fretting that individuals would make the “wrong” choice – that is, a choice that religious extremists do not approve of.
These forces have been called the Religious Right or Christian nationalists. No matter the name, their end goal is the same: to compel Americans to live under a narrow, extremely conservative and fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity and to twist religious freedom into an instrument of discrimination and denial of rights.
The Supreme Court may be willing to give aid and comfort to these budding theocrats, but in the end, they won’t win. Their vision for America is grounded firmly in the past, not the future. They’re offering us a failed system; Americans don’t want it.
The Religious Right’s scheme for a “Christian nation” will eventually collapse because it’s out of step with the reality of our nation. Americans are already demonstrating by their actions that they want real religious freedom, not religious coercion or government policies that extend preference to some groups over others.
As we work to rebuild the church-state wall, it’s important to keep a few things in mind. First, this must be a joint effort. Believers of all types and nonbelievers must join forces in an air of mutual respect and tolerance. All who are willing to embrace the vision of religious freedom resting on a high and firm church-state wall should be welcomed.
Secondly, we must play the long game. All movements designed to expand human rights take time. We must accept that some of the work we do won’t bear fruit for years to come. We’ll do it anyway because that’s the right action to take.
Finally, we must fend off despair, anger and a sense of hopelessness. Yes, the situation is very serious right now. Yes, the work before us is challenging. But since when have decent people been afraid of a challenge? At what point have the forces seeking to improve the lives of their fellow citizens achieved anything by giving up?
The statement, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” is often attributed, incorrectly, to Edmund Burke. Whoever said it, the sentiment is good (although we would now say “people” instead of “men”) and can guide us today. Those of us who care about real religious freedom in this country, which encompasses the right to choose which faith you will support or the right to support none, understand that shoring up the church-state wall is the necessary first step to protecting all of us.
Far from being antagonists, as Christian nationalists portray them to be, religious freedom and separation of religion and government are allies and natural partners. It’s fair to say that without that protective distance between church and state, religious freedom will wither away.
We have a lot of work to do to make that clear to the American people. Let’s get to it.