May 2019 Church & State Magazine - May 2019

On The Road Again: A Church-State Journey With An Engaging Guide

  Rob Boston

I think it would be fun to take a road trip with Jay Wexler. But chances are slim that you’re going to get an opportunity to buckle up and hit the highway next to Wexler, a professor of law at Boston University School of Law, humorist and novelist, so do the next best thing and take a vicarious ride by reading his new book, Our Non-Christian Nation: How Atheists, Satanists, Pagans, and Others Are Demanding Their Rightful Place in Public Life.

Wexler careens around the country as he explores his thesis that the U.S. Supreme Court has more or less scrapped the notion of strict separation of church and state that it embraced in the 1960s and ’70s and is allowing religious groups to have increased access to public spaces, public forums, public funds and, in some cases, public schools. While Wexler would prefer strict separation, he argues that in this new legal climate, it’s vital that religious minorities step up so that we don’t end up with Christian groups monopolizing the public square by default.

Wexler examines several recent church-state conflicts where members of religious minority groups or non-religious groups have sought parity with Christians. Two of the cases he examines were brought by Americans United: One concerned a military widow’s legal fight to get the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to allow the use of a pentacle, the symbol of Wicca, on her husband’s gravestone. The second case was a challenge to mostly Christian invocations before meetings of the city council in Greece, N.Y.

AU settled the Wiccan case out of court when the VA agreed to approve the symbol, and the invocation case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where Americans United lost – kind of. As Wexler points out, the ruling in Greece v. Gal­loway upheld the prayers but also opened the door for members of minority faiths and non-theists to offer invocations before local and state legislative bodies, and many have been doing it.

This is good for pluralism and interfaith understanding, right? It is when things go smoothly, which is not always the case. Wexler writes about communities where Christians freaked out at the very thought of having to share a public microphone with Wiccans, Satanists and atheists.

Our Non Christian Nation book cover

Our Non-Christian Nation: How Atheists, Satanists, Pagans, and Others are Demanding Their Rightful Place in Public Life by Jay Wexler. Redwood Press, 189 pp.

In Phoenix, after word got out that two Satanists had won the right to deliver an invocation before the city council, some conservatives went bonkers and, during a public meeting, lined up to demand that the Satanists be silenced.

Writes Wexler, “[T]he vast majority of people who spoke urged the council to simply ban the Satanists from speaking. Their comments were filled with hate and ignorance. …”

The Satanists in question are members of The Satanic Temple (TST), a group that makes several appearances in Our Non-Christian Nation. In a chapter about the group, Wexler points out that its members don’t literally worship Satan. Rather, they see Satan as a metaphor for rebellion and a refusal to mindlessly knuckle under to authority, especially religious authority.

The group is serious about its beliefs and has rituals, doctrine and holidays. TST members are also fans of demanding equal time. They’ve petitioned to give invocations in many communities, sought to erect satanic symbols alongside Christian ones in public spaces and launched after-school Satan clubs to compete with Christian ones.

Many of TST’s critics have never bothered to talk to its members. Wexler visits with Temple supporters and takes a road trip (naturally) to Belle Plaine, Minn., a town that briefly considered allowing the display of a satanic symbol alongside a Christian-themed war memorial. Instead, town officials voted to move the Christian memorial to private space.

Our Non-Christian Nation is so engaging in part because Wexler puts a human face on the stories of church-state conflict he tells. He travels to Wisconsin to spend time with Selena Fox, a Wiccan leader who worked with Americans United on the pentacle case. He visits a Muslim school in North Carolina that is participating in the state’s voucher plan and hangs out with members of Summum, a Utah-based esoteric faith whose members sought (unsuccessfully) to place their “Seven Aphorisms” next to a Ten Commandments monument in a public park in Salt Lake City.

Wexler believes that by taking advantage of whatever public forums government chooses to open up to religion, minority groups heighten their visibility and create what he calls a “religiously cacophonous pub­lic square.” This, he argues, is not perfect but is preferable to a Christian-only public square.

And in some cases, Wex­ler points out, government officials decide they’d rather not host all of those voices and revert back to a secular square. Some communities, rather than allow Wiccans, Satanists and atheists to deliver invocations, have adopted moments of silence instead. Rather than have a town green in December crammed with nativity scenes, menorahs, depictions of the Flying Spag­hetti Monster, festivus poles made out of beer cans and goat-headed deities, some towns have shut down these forums. In other words, sometimes forced pluralism can, ironically, lead to secularism.

But if there is to be real cacophony in the public square, we need to be able to deal with that – and here our nation has some work to do. While Wexler’s book contains some heart-warming tales of Pagan invocations that went off without a hitch, we also read of a good deal of intolerance: public officials walk out or turn their backs on an atheist, a banner promoting freethought in a public park is vandalized, a Satanist who wants to do things Christians take for granted is called names and threatened. For Wexler’s vision to come to fruition, some folks are going to need to grow up a bit.

My only quibble with this book concerns the question of tax aid. When it comes to access to public space and invocations, Wexler’s point is hard to deny: All groups should seek access to avoid a Christian monopoly. The question of funding is much more problematic. Americans Uni­ted has always believed that religions should rely on voluntary contributions for all of their projects. A church tax is wrong, whether it goes to one church or 50 churches.

But in the main, Our Non-Christian Nation is an engaging and thought-provoking read. You’re sure to enjoy it.

* * *

Andrew L. Seidel’s hard-hitting new book, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American (Sterling, 352 pp.), is a must-read for all advocates of separation of church and state. Seidel, an attorney at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, argues that many principles that the Religious Right labels as “biblical” not only did not inspire the creation of the American government, they stand in opposition to it.

It’s hard to argue with this prem­ise. After all, the Bible is an ancient religious tome, not a model for modern-day governance. It doesn’t promote representative dem­o­­cracy or republican government but models autocratic kings and theocracy, which were the norm during the times it was written.

There’s much to recommend about Seidel’s well-written, well-researched tome, but it’s especially notable for its critical examination of “civil religion.” The tendency of government to endorse religion in a generic way – “In God We Trust” stamped on money, “under God” slipped into the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” named the national motto – has never been taken seriously by the federal courts, which have blessed it as a harmless form of “ceremonial deism” (whatever that is). As more and more Americans boldly declare themselves “nones,” people free of membership in organized faith groups, it’s time to ask whether this reliance on civil religion makes sense, or indeed whether it ever did.

Seidel has penned a powerful broadside against so much Religious Right mythology. Here’s hoping this book finds a large audience.

The Founding Myth book cover

The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American by Andrew L. Seidel. Sterling, 352 pp.

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