The other day, I was telling someone what I do, and the person responded – not atypically – by asking if all of our supporters are atheists and religious minorities. Actually, no, I replied, and I smiled thinking of a letter I had recently received from one of our members.
The letter told the story of how, in 1969, he had obtained a court order allowing him to be admitted to the Alabama Bar without saying “so help me, God” at the end of the oath of office. In his own words: “The refusal was because I considered, as used in this context, these words to be very un-Christian.” His view, he explained, was based on the following words, attributed to Jesus in the New Testament: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and to God the things which are God’s.” Our supporter said he believes so deeply in this idea that he plans for this statement to be read at his funeral and to be written (in “condensed version”) on his tombstone.
People support our cause for a variety of reasons, which makes “Americans United” a fitting name. Some are proponents of public schools and oppose vouchers. Some care most about protecting reproductive freedom and/or LGBTQ equality and want to make sure the government doesn’t allow religious views to undermine these goals. Some value all forms of diversity in our country, including religious diversity, and equal opportunity for all. Others belong to minority faiths or are atheists. And yes, others, like our member who wrote to me last week, support our cause because they are religious and believe that church-state separation is key to protecting and preserving their faith.
I had the opportunity to speak to this last point last month, when I was honored to be the annual speaker for the Glazer Institute, the longest-running interfaith institute in the country housed at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
The key arguments I made to the audience of interfaith clergy and lay people were:
It’s best for religion if people come to their beliefs on their own. As Roger Williams, the Baptist theologian who founded Rhode Island in 1636 as the first colony with the separation of church and state, put it: “Forced worship stinks in the nostrils of God.”
Church-state separation prevents the government from perverting religion or co-opting it for political purposes. A great example is the Bladensburg cross, which is the subject of a current Supreme Court case. A group of Christian denominations and organizations including the Baptists, Lutherans and Presbyterians, joined by a few Jewish groups, argued in their friend-of-the-court brief that the government’s use of the cross to commemorate war dead instead of to recognize Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and the Christian promise of resurrection “desacralize[s] what to Christians is the most precious symbol of the central promise of their faith: ‘that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’ John 3:16.”
Separation of religion and government makes a religion more likely to survive long term. An intriguing example is a study of vouchers in Milwaukee, led by a Notre Dame economist, which showed that at the same time as Catholic schools were receiving millions of dollars from the state, the voucher-accepting churches saw a significant decrease in donations. As a result, the church had to reduce spending on items such as staff salaries, mission support and church maintenance. The study revealed that short-term gains from government funding can drive loyal worshippers and donors away in the long term.
Church-state separation forces religions to innovate so they can fund themselves. Benjamin Franklin made this point in a letter he wrote in 1780 to his Unitarian minister friend the Rev. Richard Price: “When a Religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support, so that its Professors are oblig’d to call for the help of the Civil Power, ’tis a Sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”
One of my favorite parts of leading Americans United is the strange bedfellows we bring together. People of faith – like those whom I addressed in Michigan – and the passionately nonreligious continue to form two of our most devoted groups of supporters.
Time to sign off. I have to start thinking about the National Secular Society keynote I am delivering in London next month!
Rachel Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.