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 Aisha O’Neil of Durango, Colorado
I grew up Jewish in one of the most Mormon places in America: Springdale, Utah. Religion was irrevocably connected to every segment of town life, from community gatherings to school assemblies. On Sundays, local business would halt, and around Christmas, every cashier would wish me a “Merry Christmas.” Still, in my youth, my parents attempted to shield me from the breadth of the discrimination we faced. The most frightening stories were the ones I learned later, as a teenager. Principal among these was a conflict over a school choir performance.
Springdale Elementary held a Christmas concert each year, during which students were heralded to a Mormon Church and taught to perform a series of religious hymns. My parents approached school administration with two small demands: (1) the name of the concert be changed to a “Holiday Concert” and (2) the addition of a singular Hanukkah song.
Given a provision in the school’s mission statement about equity, my parents thought their battle would be easily won. Instead, the school principal mentioned consulting a lawyer. A friend of my mom overheard my first-grade teacher say, “I don’t know why we’d sing a Hanukkah song when the Jews killed Jesus.” Although – after four contentious meetings – my parents finally were granted both of their demands, it remained difficult to shield my sister and me from the harsh truths of our country’s religious intolerance.
Springdale is a severe example of these inequities, but similar stories play out daily in cities and towns across America, emboldened by nothing less than the U.S. government itself. One of the first contracts of government made in America was the Mayflower Compact. This document, written by settlers of Plymouth Bay, set a precedent for freedom in the New World. It also began the history of Christianity in American governance. The agreement begins with the phrase “in the name of God”, and goes on to name the colonists’ pilgrimage a journey “undertaken for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian Faith.” This original popular subscription to Christianity soon took form as American policy, determining U.S. interaction with Native tribes, justification for atrocities against enslaved Africans and laws regarding the rights of LGBTQ+ communities and women.
To the ignorance of some, this Christianity continues into modern political rhetoric. In 1973, Richard Nixon coined the phrase “God bless America.” From Ronald Reagan’s inauguration through the later Bush administration, this remark was repeated 49 times by American presidents in major speeches. This religious rhetoric is not relegated to the presidency: during the Cold War, the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, and “In God We Trust” was reaffirmed as America’s national motto in 2011.
Belief in this God (and these statements do refer to a Christian God; I have never heard the names of Adonai or Allah on a president’s lips) has become a sort of litmus for American politicians: if a man demonstrates strong faith in Christianity, he is a true American, and otherwise, he is not.
This has true consequences for religious tolerance in America. Establishing belief in God as a fundamental aspect of Americanism rationalizes the idea that those who are not Christian are different – less human. 1,590 incidents of religious hate crimes were reported to the FBI in 2021, the most recent metric available. This is a dramatic increase from 2020. Perhaps more separation between church and state would not halt these crimes entirely, but it would denormalize them.
My new synagogue has security cameras from every outdoor angle and a part-time security guard who volunteers for us over the holidays. But inside that small building, I feel safe. My Jewish identity is not defined by the hardship prejudice has forced upon me. It is characterized by the glow of Shabbat candles on Friday nights, the comfort of my safta’s matzah peach kugel on Passover, and the beauty of prayers that begin with “baruch atah Adonai…” My culture has existed for over two thousand years. It will continue, no matter the efforts of Christian extremists or certain governmental officials. The question, then, is not of my children’s faith but our society’s acceptance of them.
As much as America has failed in its commitments to religious freedom, it has endeavored to realize them. In 1649, 29 years after the signing of the Mayflower Compact, the Maryland Toleration Act was passed. The act was revolutionary: some of the only such legislation worldwide, this bill guaranteed freedom of religion for all Christian settlers. Although not without flaws – the act prevented religious persecution only for Christians – this set a legal precedent for the First Amendment to the American Constitution.
Two hundred and fifth years ago, Jews could not vote in South Carolina, Georgia and New Hampshire. In Pennsylvania, only those who embraced Jesus as their savior had voting rights. And in New York, Jewish votes were often challenged. Today, Jews make up 6% of Congress and 19% of appellate judges. Perhaps the First Amendment to the Constitution did not state a guarantee but a commitment – that America must continue to fight for religious equality until true freedom of religion becomes a reality.
I envision a world for my children in which “God” is never written beside the American flag. Where among the desperate battles of politics, culture remains something sacred, untarnishable and unspoken. In this world, every politician would have no choice but to condemn religiously motivated violence. Without the ability to use culture as a campaign slogan, religious discrimination would become akin to all other brutality in America: unacceptable. Debates over abortion would be relegated to the practices’ moral and medical implications and the rights of LGBTQ+ communities would not be discussed with Bible quotes. No culture could be “savage” or in need of a white savior because no culture would be politically popularized as inherently superior.
And maybe in this world, I will never be called to engage in a spoken battle over my daughter’s choir performance.