Every now and then, it’s helpful to go back to the basics and remind Americans why we need the separation of church and state. Dale Butland, former press secretary and chief of staff for U.S. Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) did a great job of that recently in the Columbus Dispatch.
Butland uses the utterly inappropriate grilling about her religious beliefs that Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was subjected to as his launching point. He writes, “It’s one thing to question candidates about their value systems and moral compasses. It’s quite another to violate the spirit of the Constitution by imposing de facto religious tests for public office – or posit that God is a political partisan.”
Along the way, Butland reminds us that the Constitution is secular, invokes Thomas Jefferson’s powerful metaphor of the First Amendment erecting a “wall of separation between church and state” and asserts that in nation where people hew to many faiths and non-faiths, we can’t get along if the government is playing favorites.
“In past eras, the targets were Jews and Catholics – and in colonial Virginia, even Baptists. Today’s targets might be Muslims or atheists,” Butland writes. “Tomorrow’s targets could be – who knows?”
People sometimes ask why there’s so much fuss over church-state issues. Is it really such a big deal if a cross appears on public property or children are asked to say a “non-denominational” prayer in a public school?
Yes, it is. And the reason it’s a big deal is that we all hold a value system – some anchored in religion and some not – and when the government uses its awesome power to favor one system over all others, it not only violates the fundamental right of conscience, it creates winners and losers on the basis of belief. Some of us get “most-favored citizen” status. The rest of us are relegated to the second class.
We can’t live together in peace in a situation like that. As Butland puts it, “Getting along in a pluralistic society requires that while all faiths are respected, none is enshrined – officially or otherwise – in our laws or government.”
It’s not a new argument – but, considering the growing political power of Christian nationalism, it’s one that needs to be made over and over again.