Editor’s Note: Today “The Wall of Separation” is pleased to present an inaugural post by Rhys Long, a rising senior at Brown University who will be interning in Americans United’s Communications Department this summer.
I grew up in a small, culturally and religiously homogeneous town in the mountains of Pennsylvania. My public high school holds a prayer to start our graduation ceremony. The Bible club meets weekly. Nearly everyone attends church. Here, there is no meaningful distinction between personal and political beliefs because most residents hold similar religious values; a prayer at graduation goes unchallenged because no one thinks to disagree with it. While things like public school prayer always bothered me, I didn’t have the language or knowledge to understand why until I moved away to attend college.
My name is Rhys Long, and I am a religious studies major at Brown University. Studying religion in an academic setting has been one of the most rewarding endeavors I have ever undertaken: I have gained an appreciation for the rich cultural contributions of religion, the noble ideals that undergird belief and the importance of religious diversity and tolerance. Perhaps most importantly, I have learned the significance of the First Amendment’s separation between church and state.
In my first religious studies course, I was captivated by anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s description of culture as “the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.” Nowhere is that definition more accurate than in the American Experiment; as a nation, we tout ourselves as a beacon of freedom, a paragon of tolerance and a home for the persecuted. Yet the American political right continually makes efforts to undermine these claims by attacking religious minorities, enforcing Christian Nationalist ideology, and discriminating against women and the LGBTQ+ community. The stories we tell about ourselves and the actions we take are no longer in sync, and we risk becoming an openly discriminatory and harmful nation if we don’t take action to fight against the establishment of religion.
No religion woven into the fabric of law
I choose to study the theory and practice of religion because religion is seemingly inescapable, an essential system woven into the fabric of American political and cultural life. However, that does not mean that a particular religion should be woven into the fabric of American law. America ought to be proud of our fundamental right to believe or not believe, pray or not pray, practice or not practice, any religion of our choosing.
Religion can be invaluable in helping folks lead fulfilling lives: It inspires acts of charity, generates hope and often exemplifies the best in humanity. Whether centered on forgiveness, devotion or service, religion provides valuable lessons and morals that can benefit practitioners and nonbelievers alike.
Part of the value of a secular democracy is that practitioners can lead lives informed by their religious beliefs. But America is not a theocracy; the religious beliefs of one group should not have the power to dictate the lives of those who believe differently. Religion is not carte blanche to engage in discriminatory or coercive behavior.
Our duty to uphold separation
The separation of church and state is essential to preserving equality for Americans of all faiths and no faith. We have a sacred duty to uphold constitutional protections against the establishment of religion, because failing to do so would rob America of the diverse beliefs, cultures and people that shaped and currently compose this nation.
This summer at Americans United, I plan to highlight the myriad ways in which the wall of separation allows our nation to prosper and better serve all residents – not just those of a specific creed. Whether Muslim, Hindu, Jain, Christian, Buddhist or Atheist, America ought to be a safe and welcoming home for you. By staying informed and working to keep government and religion separate, we can ensure the protections that America promises. I look forward to doing my part in the fight here for the next 10 weeks.