Editor’s Note: This week, “The Wall of Separation” blog is featuring the essays and videos submitted by the winners of Americans United’s 2023 AU Student Contest, which asked high school and college students to reflect on their vision for church-state separation. Submissions have been edited lightly and do not necessarily reflect the views of Americans United.
By Isaiah Savoie of Kentwood, Michigan
When the founding fathers sat down to write the United States Constitution, they were looking to create a nation unlike any other. Perhaps the most important ingredient in this great experiment was the protection of religious liberty through the First Amendment. America became a belief system and faith went from pews to public square. In the over 250 years since, this protection has grown even more integral as the American creed has become richer and more diverse.
However, this increase in cultural diversity has also made the country more fractious. As Protestant Evangelicals watch the sunset on their days as a cultural majority, they have begun waging war on the rights of vulnerable populations. For years, a cold civil war has bubbled under the surface between what was and what may be. As Conservatives make a final push through legislation and court proceedings, we are invited to imagine a United States we have never seen: A United States with true religious freedom without favor and equality without exclusion.
In order to envision a future of true separation of church and state, one must first define it. The phrase originates from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association where he described the Constitution as creating a “wall of separation… between church and state.” For the first time in human history, our Constitution said power was derived from “We the people” as opposed to a deity or common culture.
Despite this original intention, the role of Christianity in American government is hotly contested to this day. A March 2021 survey by Pew Research Center found that a clear majority of American adults (55%) support the principle of separation of church and state; however, this figure fluctuates between different demographics. For example, 76% of Republicans said the founding fathers intended America to be a Christian nation as opposed to 47% of Democrats. These figures are exacerbated when limited to white Protestant Evangelicals, 81% of which believe the country should be Christian.
While the concept of a Christian nation is appealing to white Christians, two-thirds of Americans believe the Constitution reflects the will of men as opposed to any divine being. A similar share says the government should never declare any religion. One constant throughout the survey was the ambiguity around what a “Christian nation” actually entailed. A vocal minority of church-state integrationists wish to see what they believe to be religious liberty. Their misguided interpretation of liberty would be where Christianity played a dominant and institutionalized role in society. In a country with a state religion, the privilege of the few outweighs the freedom of the many – an anti-democratic model unfit for the United States.
Many were surprised at the sight of Christian flags at the January 6th insurrection; however, the warning signs had been evident for quite some time. In the 1970s, Christians made up about 90% of the country, a figure that has dwindled to 64% as of 2020. This cultural shift has threatened Christians who have leveraged their political power to shape policy in their image. In that same Pew Research Center survey, it was revealed that 69% of white Protestants believe their religious liberties are being threatened. FBI hate crime data revealed the fallacy of Christian victimhood as the majority of religious hate crimes come from anti-Muslim or anti-Jewish motivation.
This perceived slight is the motivating factor behind a Conservative political movement to prioritize the comfort of white Evangelicals over the freedoms of other groups. This approach of appealing to religious Conservatives has proved incredibly effective in the advancement of many Republican political careers. It has also provided a minority of church-state integrationists an outsized, disproportionate position of influence over policy.
A nation with effective church-state separation would not have to live in fear of what the privileged will do when their influence and representation regress to the mean. Diverse groups of varying sexual orientations and gender identities would be accepted, and there would be no fear-mongering to demonize this move toward tolerance. White grievance and the Alt-Right are a serious threat to American safety and democracy and the only way to curtail their influence is to commit to strict church-state separation.
The most vital reason we need church-state separation is to protect personal freedoms. Conservatives have cleverly manipulated religious liberty laws to discriminate against populations that are already at risk for abuse. An illustrative example of this maneuver is the misuse of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. While the act originally sought to protect individuals’ religious freedoms key court decisions over the last decade have given private businesses a license to discriminate. The most important decision of this type was Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Inc., where the Supreme Court allowed Hobby Lobby to claim exemption to the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to provide birth control to employees.
This misinterpretation of the RFRA is common in the healthcare industry, where some religious healthcare providers want to limit what kind of care they provide and who they provide it to. These limitations are particularly damaging to women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community who are already at a disadvantage when it comes to receiving health care. Religious liberty has also been weaponized in child welfare programs where LGBTQ+ prospective parents have been refused the opportunity to adopt children against the children’s best interest. Religious exemptions should not be used to override nondiscrimination protections in any venue, particularly health care where discrimination can cost lives.
A secular United States is not as far off as it may seem. It has been written into the blueprint of our country from the very start. Some day, as Conservative influence wanes, we may very well see a nation with true religious freedom. With a fully secular government, discrimination would not be empowered under the guise of religious freedom. Passing legislation with protections for high-risk communities and repressing the over-reach of religious exemptions, the United States may begin to live up to its architects’ initial design.