Several American colonies (and later states) used to have officially established churches. In New England, Congregationalism reigned. In Virginia and the Carolinas, Anglican was the officially preferred faith. Maryland was founded as a Catholic colony with toleration toward other Christian groups.
The adoption of the First Amendment in 1791 didn’t affect these official, state-backed churches because the Bill of Rights was originally limited to the federal government. But they all faded away anyway. Massachusetts, the last state with an official church, disestablished it in 1833.
What happened? The simple answer is that these official unions of church and state failed because they did not serve the people or further the cause of religious freedom. People did not want them, and they could not survive.
Amazingly, there are people among us today who want to return to that old, failed system and allow state officials to establish whatever religion they see fit. In reaction to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, America First Legal (AFL), a group of former Trump administration officials, issued a statement urging the high court to eventually rule that the provision of the First Amendment that bars laws “respecting an establishment of religion” does not apply to the states.
“AFL is hopeful that the justices will build on this ruling and eventually disincorporate the Establishment Clause, which fully protects the rights of states to decide whether and to what extent they will establish religion within their borders,” the group asserted in a statement.
Just to be clear, under this scheme, Utah could declare itself officially Mormon. Mississippi and Alabama could establish the Southern Baptist faith. Minnesota could adopt Lutheranism. These official churches would then start receiving direct taxpayer support. Their symbols would become intertwined with the state. Their doctrines would control public education. Public policy would reflect their tenets.
What would happen to the people who dissent from these official, state-imposed faiths? If the past is any guide, it won’t be very pleasant. During the last period of established churches in America, people were taxed to support the official church whether they belonged to it or not. Some dissenters were denied civic privileges; others were imprisoned, or even executed, because they dared to profess doctrines that offended government officials.
The ex-Trumpers aren’t the only ones pushing this line. U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) recently told members of a Colorado church, “I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk. It was not in the Constitution, it was in a stinking letter and it means nothing like what they say it does.” Her comments led to a schooling from AU Vice President of Strategic Communications Andrew Seidel.
The last few weeks have been difficult ones for advocates of separation of church and state. AFL’s statement and Boebert’s outburst are reminders of why we need to keep up the fight. Remember, there are always people who are eager to make things even worse. And yes, even in the year 2022, our land remains stalked by theocrats who burn to instill discredited systems of religion-state union that sensible Americans discarded long ago.
Photo: Reconstruction of a 17-century chapel, St. Mary’s City, Md.