Speaking at a religious service on June 26th, Lauren Boebert told worshipers: “The church is supposed to direct the government. The government is not supposed to direct the church. That is not how our Founding Fathers intended it.”
She added: “I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk that’s not in the Constitution. It was in a stinking letter, and it means nothing like what they say it does.”
This conflation of church and state is not new, but it is a growing part of public discourse. Christian Nationalism, which is a driving force behind certain political forces in America today, encourages people to merge their religious and their national identities.
On July 23rd Marjorie Taylor Greene told Taylor Hanson of the right-wing Next News Network, “We need to be the party of nationalism, and I’m a Christian. And I say it proudly: We should be Christian nationalists. When Republicans learn to represent most of the people that vote for them, then we will be the party that continues to grow without having to chase down certain identities or chase down certain segments of people.” Predictably, this caused a firestorm. Christian Nationalism has been at the forefront of public discourse for years. And since the January 6th riots Christian Nationalism has been even more of a concern because it was a major motivator of the insurrectionists.
As we have discussed on this podcast before,
Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel Perry, the authors of Taking America Back for God, define Christian nationalism as “‘an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture’”. Whitehead and Perry assert that “Christian nationalists believe that the U.S. was founded as an explicitly Christian nation; that the country’s success is in part a reflection of God’s ultimate plan for the world; that prayer should be allowed in public schools; and that the federal government should declare the U.S. a Christian nation, advocate Christian values, and support religious displays in public places.” Furthermore, the two authors aver that the “‘Christianity’ of Christian nationalism ‘includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism. It is as ethnic and political as it is religious’”; they add that Christian nationalist rhetoric “‘finds its roots in the desire to create boundaries of group membership around race and the right of white Americans to segregate themselves from minorities’”. Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian. It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation. According to Paul D. Miller, “: It’s easiest to define Christian nationalism by contrasting it with Christianity. Christianity is a religion. It’s a set of beliefs about ultimate things: most importantly, about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s drawn from the Bible, from the Nicene Creed, and the Apostles’ Creed. Christian nationalism is a political ideology about American identity. It is a set of policy prescriptions for what the nationalists believe the American government should do. It’s not drawn from the Bible. It draws political theory from secular philosophy and their own version of history as well….It idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life.”
Dr. Kristin Kobes Du Mez, author of Jesus and John Wayne, takes the idea that Christian nationalism provides moral cover a step further, noting that Christian nationalism adheres to “the belief that America is God’s chosen nation and must be defended as such.”
According to Rev. Ryan Dunn, those who hold to a Christian nationalist view assume a religious duty in defending their beliefs in regards to the nation. So many of those who stormed the U.S. Capitol felt quite natural in holding up “Jesus 2020” and “Jesus Saves!” banners. They believed their actions were a defense of the nation and therefore sanctioned by God.
As Philip Gorski explains,
White Christian Nationalism (WCN) is, first of all, a story about America. In this story, America was ‘founded as a Christian nation.’ It was founded by and for (white) Christians; and its laws and institutions are based on “Biblical” — which is to say, Protestant — Christianity; or perhaps even breathed into the Founders’ ears by God, himself. This much is certain, though: America is divinely favoured. Whence its enormous wealth and power. Divine blessings lead to national obligations. America has been entrusted with a sacred mission: to spread religion, freedom, and civilization — by force, if necessary. Today, that mission is endangered by the growing influence, and even the mere presence, of non-Christians (also: non-whites) in America. White Christians must therefore “take back the culture” and “the country” — which are, after all, their rightful possessions. What White Christian Nationalists hear when Trump promises to “Make America Great Again” is to “Make America Christian Again” (and, sotto voce, make it “White Again”, too.) WCN is not just a story. It is also a political vision, manifested in a set of “policy preferences.” Violence and retribution are central to that vision. As Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead have shown, White Christian Nationalists tend to favour a strong military and capital punishment; they also strongly oppose gun control. Racial purity is also central to the vision. WCN is thus strongly correlated with opposition to interracial marriage, non-white immigration, and affirmative action.
Christian Nationalism aims to merge religious and political or state identities. So the issue of the church/state debate is at the heart of the Christian Nationalist movement. So let’s consider the history of church and state in America for a moment.
The first European Americans were religious settlers. But were they looking for “religious freedom?” Or something else?
The truth is, the pilgrims who came to the New World weren’t looking for religious freedom as we think of it, they were looking to start theistic colonies. What they started here were the exact OPPOSITE of religiously free societies. The colonies they started were strictly ruled by religious law and dogma and were not accepting of outside religions. So while they were searching for religious freedom for themselves, when they got here, they established colonies that had no religious liberty. So when we say the first settlers were here looking for religious freedom, we have to be careful – that is in some ways a misnomer.
And their religion was nothing like any religion practiced in America today. Easter and Christmas were outlawed as pagan festivities, for example. The church was the organizing factor for everything – social, commercial, political, and familial. So, we can’t really use the First American Christians as examples or guides because their goals and ideas were so radically different from ours.
In short, they didn’t want religious freedom so much as a theocracy.
It’s why we get such radically different ideas from the Founding Fathers as opposed to the Founding Colonies.
In Congress, on July 4, 1776, we got a very different take on religion and the public.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen colonies of the United States of America was, “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
What a lot of people don’t realize, especially people who claim that America is a Christian nation, is that God is not mentioned in the Constitution. At all. Not once. The Founders wrote purely secular laws. Our Constitution is founded in the idea of Natural Rights. Natural rights are those that are not dependent on the laws or customs of any particular culture or government, and so are universal, fundamental and inalienable. The idea of human rights derives from theories of natural rights. Those rejecting a distinction between human rights and natural rights view human rights as the successor that is not dependent on natural theology or Christian theological doctrine.
There’s a reason for the secular grounding, too. Americans were specifically rejecting the divine right of kings.
The divine right of kings was the idea that a person was king because he was ordained by God. If a person was ordained by God, then they couldn’t be challenged because then you would be challenging God’s will, and thereby challenging God himself. You couldn’t get to be king unless God wanted you to be, and then you couldn’t be questioned because you were chosen by God.
The Founding Fathers flatly rejected this. They were specifically trying to get AWAY from this thinking when they broke away from England. So the Constitution is a particularly secular document. America’s beginning is literally a challenge to the king. Anything that smacked of divine rights obviously had no place in our laws. So God had to be stripped out of the founding document.
America, then, is very much an Enlightenment Experiment. It is the result of new and developing ideas that were breaking away from theology and the church and striving to establish ways of thinking outside of religion. The goal was to ground authority not in God, but in something else.
That’s what makes the First Amendment so interesting.
It says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The First Amendment is really profound. It guarantees a lot of liberties all at once. But the things we’re most interested in today, are the clauses that say there will be no establishment of a religion and the prohibition of free exercise. That’s two very different things. People who believe in the separation of church and state champion the first. Christian Nationalists push the second.
One piece of this puzzle that a lot of people don’t know about is the Treaty of Tripoli. It was signed in 1796. It was the first treaty between the United States and Tripoli (now Libya) to secure commercial shipping rights and protect American ships in the Mediterranean Sea from local Barbary pirates. It was ratified by the United States Senate unanimously without debate on June 7, 1797, taking effect June 10, 1797, with the signature of President John Adams.
What is of particular interest in this rather obscure bit of policy is Article 11 of this treaty. It reads:
As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion, — as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen, — and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
“Musselmen” means and “Mehomitan” mean Muslim.
So the US made it pretty clear in their foreign relations that they were not a Christian nation. There were domestic laws that seemed to imply God was more important, but the outward facing visage of the nation was claiming to be entirely secular.
Combine this with Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802. Now, Jefferson wrote the Declaration which seemed to establish that our rights came from our Creator. Which a lot of people point to as their evidence that America is a religious nation. But we forget that the Declaration is not a legal document. It’s a manifesto at best, but really more of an angry letter. It’s not the law. Jefferson also wrote convincingly that religion and law should be entirely different matters.
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
This is literally where we get the idea of the separation of church and state. Jefferson set up the framework for us to think about how we should relate religion and government, or perhaps, not relate them at all.
So, let’s move the conversation along. There’s a lot that could be said in the development of this relationship. This is an ever-evolving thing. But let’s talk about the 20th century for a minute. This has been in the news just recently, in fact, with the Kennedy case, the prayer at football case that the Supreme Court just decided. In that case, the Court decided in favor of the coach who was praying on the 50 yard-line. So it was a bit of a blow to the separation of church and state. This Court does not look like it is going to be particularly sympathetic to the establishment clause.
But let’s go back in time a minute. Let’s consider Lemon v. Kurtzman, from 1971.
Both Pennsylvania and Rhode Island adopted statutes that provided for the state to pay for aspects of non-secular, non-public education. The Pennsylvania statute was passed in 1968 and provided funding for non-public elementary and secondary school teachers’ salaries, textbooks, and instructional materials for secular subjects. Rhode Island’s statute was passed in 1969 and provided state financial support for non-public elementary schools in the form of supplementing 15% of teachers’ annual salaries. (Oyez.org)
The question was, do statutes that provide state funding for non-public, non-secular schools violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?
This case gave us what’s known as the Lemon Test. The Lemon test consisted of a criterion of three prongs:
- The statute must have a secular legislative purpose. (Also known as the Purpose Prong)
- The principal or primary effect of the statute must not advance nor inhibit religion. (Also known as the Effect Prong)
- The statute must not result in an “excessive government entanglement” with religion. (Also known as the Entanglement Prong)
- There are three factors.
- We must consider character and purpose of institution benefited.
- Nature of aid the state provides.
- Resulting relationship between government and religious authority.
- There are three factors.
As the Court stated, “In the absence of precisely stated constitutional prohibitions, we must draw lines with reference to the three main evils against which the Establishment Clause was intended to afford protection: ‘sponsorship, financial support, and active involvement of the sovereign in religious activity.’ Watz v. Tax Commission.”
Basically, the conclusion was that total separation is not possible – churches must still go through fire inspections and obey zoning laws. There will always be a relationship between church and state.
But the Court said, “The highways of church and state relationships are not likely to be one-way streets, and the Constitution’s authors sought to protect religious worship from the pervasive power of government. The history of many countries attests to the hazards of religion’s intruding into the political arena or the political power intruding into the legitimate and free exercise of religious belief.”
Entanglement goes both ways. When the church is involved with the state the state is involved with the church. Both kinds of oversight are inappropriate.
Another case worth discussing is Lee v. Weisman, from 1992.
The Court stated, “When the government puts its imprimatur on a particular religion, it conveys a message of exclusion to all those who do not adhere to the favored beliefs. A government cannot be premised on the belief that all persons are created equal when it asserts that God prefers some.”
In keeping with the practice of several other public middle and high school principals in Providence, Rhode Island, Robert E. Lee, a middle school principal, invited a rabbi to speak at his school’s graduation ceremony. Daniel Weisman’s daughter, Deborah, was among the graduates. Hoping to stop the rabbi from speaking at his daughter’s graduation, Weisman sought a temporary restraining order in District Court – but was denied. After the ceremony, where prayers were recited, Weisman filed for a permanent injunction barring Lee and other Providence public school officials from inviting clergy to deliver invocations and benedictions at their schools’ ceremonies. (Oyez.org)
The question at hand was, “Does the inclusion of clergy who offer prayers at official public-school ceremonies violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?
The Court answered, Yes. In a 5-to-4 decision, the Court held that government involvement in this case creates “a state-sponsored and state-directed religious exercise in a public school.” Such conduct conflicts with settled rules proscribing prayer for students. The school’s rule creates subtle and indirect coercion (students must stand respectfully and silently), forcing students to act in ways which establish a state religion. The cornerstone principle of the Establishment Clause is that government may not compose official prayers to recite as part of a religious program carried on by government. (Oyez.org)
Introducing multiple religions won’t work to alleviate this problem because America doesn’t have a plurality of religions. There is a dominant religion in America and it is favored so public religion will inevitably be oppressive. Religious minorities are oppressed every day – making them publicly profess their faith would put them in a dangerous position.
In this case, the state gave specific instructions for how a prayer should be written – making it non-sectarian – and this is a violation. The state should not be able to tell someone how to practice their religion. But when the two are combined this is inevitable.
So the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise clause have to be balanced out. We are free to practice our religion as we see fit and the state can’t tell us otherwise. But the state can’t propagate a religion, especially not one religion over another.
So what does all of this have to do with Christian Nationalism?
Christian nationalism is the merging of state and religion. It is subsuming your national identity with your religious one. When you can’t keep your state and your religion apart, you end up with theocracy, which is exactly what the Founding Fathers were trying to avoid. Christian Nationalism is trying to merge what was rent asunder at our birth. And what is terrifying, is that merger is done under the banner of “what the Founding Fathers intended.” That’s the Nationalism part of it. Christian Nationalism takes Christianity and patriotism and makes them one and the same. So the state, blind devotion to the state, and white Evangelicalism all become blended into one thing. And that’s a dangerous potion. Like the divine right of kings our Founding Father’s worked so hard to stamp out, Christian Nationalism leaves no room for dissent and demands blind devotion and purity. It is authoritarian in its very nature. And that, my friends, is foundationally un-American.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.
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