Seeking a Recommitment to Church-State Separation - Word&Way

Seeking a Recommitment to Church-State Separation

“Any religion that is imposed is no faith at all.”

Rev. Traci Blackmon, associate general minister of justice and local church ministries for the United Church of Christ, made that declaration during the Summit for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., over the weekend. The Summit was organized by Americans United for Separation of Church and State (where I serve as a board member).

“It is impossible to have freedom of any religion if you don’t have freedom of every religion and the freedom to have no religion at all,” added Blackmon, who is the lead plaintiff for a lawsuit filed by AU to challenge Missouri’s abortion ban on church-state grounds.

Thus, she decried legislation pushed by those trying to make the U.S. a “Christian” nation.

“What is being legislated is, dominantly, biblical illiteracy and theological malpractice,” Blackmon argued. “And the reason that it is important that no one’s religious beliefs be legislated is because when we do that, we remove everyone’s freedom. That’s why we are here.”

Rev. Traci Blackmon (center) speaks during a panel with Rachel Laser (left) and Katherine Stewart at the Summit for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., on April 23, 2023. (Brian Kaylor/Word&Way)

During the two-day event, other clergy joined activists, scholars, and lawyers to echo Blackmon’s call to defend the separation of church and state since it helps ensure religious freedom and other human rights. And that also meant speaking out about the dangers of Christian Nationalism, since privileging a narrow slice of Christianity inherently cuts against democratic rights in a pluralistic society.

As constitutional lawyer Andrew Seidel, AU’s vice president of strategic communications and author of American Crusade: How the Supreme Court is Weaponizing Religious Freedom, explained during the Summit, “seeking a Christian nation” is “fundamentally opposed” to church-state separation. Thus, he invoked the “wall of separation between church and state” metaphor that Thomas Jefferson used in a letter to Baptists in 1802. Those pushing Christian Nationalism, Seidel explained, “don’t get that if we build up that wall.”

“The separation of church and state is the cure for Christian Nationalism in the United States,” he added. “They cannot get what they want if there is a separation of church and state, if that wall between the two is tall and strong.”

Other speakers also highlighted the threat of Christian Nationalism to democracy and religious freedom, and they offered ways to push back and lead a recommitment to church-state separation. So this issue of A Public Witness will take you inside the Summit for Religious Freedom to consider both the challenges of the moment and the path toward a better future.

When Democracy is Annoying

Religion professor and podcaster Bradley Onishi added his voice to those warning about Christian Nationalism in his new book Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism — And What Comes Next. He brought that message on the road to the Summit, particularly highlighting how fear leads many espousing Christian Nationalism to take extreme and undemocratic actions.

“The White Christian Nationalist apocalyptic narrative justifies eschewing all the norms and processes, all of the ways that we do business in democratic institutions, and it says right now, today, you better save America,” Onishi said. “It leads to what I call the authoritarian turn in White Christian Nationalism politics. Because if you’re in the apocalypse and the world is going to end, democracy takes a long time, democracy is kind of inconvenient, democracy is kind of slow. And guess what? You may not have the votes and you may know that. You may know as a Christian Nationalist you’re actually the minority.”

“So democracy is kind of annoying. And you know what’s helpful? Authoritarianism,” he added. “Authoritarian is convenient for the Christian Nationalist because it is the only way they can actually get what they want.”

Similarly, Katherine Stewart, author of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, warned about the “radical movement that is working toward a comprehensive transformation and indeed destruction of our democracy.” As she talked about the “anti-democratic” and “authoritarian” efforts by those pushing Christian Nationalism, she argued that religious liberty rights of all people need protection through church-state separation.

“These days, certain conservative interpretations of religion end up being the deciding line between who gets to properly stay in the nation and who does not,” Stewart said. “There are other religious and humanistic traditions and convictions no less deserving of equal respect under the law that come to very different views on the same questions.”

Left: Bradley Onishi speaks at the Summit for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. on April 22, 2023. Right: Katherine Stewart speaks at the Summit for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. on April 23, 2023. (Brian Kaylor/Word&Way)

Onishi argued that the willingness to embrace authoritarianism over democracy and the desire to implement a narrow religious vision helps explain why we saw people carrying Christian flags and praying while they stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

“Jan. 6 and what happened there should not surprise us,” Onishi said. “In many ways, the people who believe that this country was built by and for them were there to reclaim the nation they think is rightfully theirs. To them, it was the act of patriots who were obeying God — not traitors, not criminals, not trespassers.”

Echoing that concern, Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart, who teaches religion at Villanova University and Harvard Divinity School, referenced the prayer by insurrectionists in the Senate chamber on Jan. 6. That proved to her that we must address “the vulnerabilities of this ideology, this triumphalist ideology.” After all, she added, “theology isn’t innocent” because it impacts how people act in the world and treat others.

“It matters how people construct the notion of God in their imagination,” Washington-Leapheart added. “There’s always been a prophetic critique of the use of God, the weaponizing of the Bible against the folk who are at the bottom of the pile.”

Such theology comes with clear democratic implications. Allyson Shortle, a professor at the University of Oklahoma who co-authored The Everyday Crusade: Christian Nationalism in American Politics, argued that we’re seeing people attach their Christian Nationalistic ideas “to some very disturbing policies, to supporting candidates who are challenging our complete democratic institutions.”

“And they are not supporting democratic norms,” she added. “They aren’t supporting freedom for all. They are not supporting religious freedom. They are supporting Christian supremacy in the name of ‘religious freedom.’”

If those espousing Christian Nationalism are attacking church-state separation, then that also gives a hint at what is needed to combat the dangers of this nationalistic ideology that borrows the trappings of Christianity.

One Nation, All Beliefs

Jennifer Hawks, associate general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, argued during the Summit that Christian Nationalism threatens not just democracy but also Christianity. And she contrasted the two belief systems: “Christianity is the gospel of love, and Christian Nationalism is the gospel of power. It is in search of power and it will use whatever tools are available to pursue that power.” So to combat this power-driven ideology, she pointed to the guiding principle needed.

“The opposite of Christian Nationalism is religious freedom,” Hawks said. “And so the more we talk about religious freedom, the more we fight for religious freedom for all people, it’s a counter to Christian Nationalism. When we support strong public schools, we are countering Christian Nationalism. Christian Nationalism does not thrive without the myth that the U.S. was a Christian nation, so we need our schools teaching history, teaching all our history.”

Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United, also lamented that religious freedom is under attack. She noted that the constitutional principle is too often viewed by people today as just meaning “homophobia” and “the right to discriminate.”

“How sad that this human right has become so corrupted,” she added. “The promise that allowed my own Jewish ancestors to flee religious persecution and find a new home here in America is now a tool of oppression. The shield that is supposed to allow all of us to live as ourselves and believe as we choose now is synonymous with discrimination. How tragic and how dangerous.”

Left: A breakout session during the Summit for Religious Freedom with Rob Boston, Allyson Shortle, Marilyn Mayo, and Jennifer Hawks in Washington, D.C., on April 23, 2023. Right: Rachel Laser speaks at the Summit for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. on April 22, 2023. (Brian Kaylor/Word&Way)

As a related problem, Laser emphasized the need to “counter the lie that church-state separation is anti-religious or anti-Christian.” As examples of the inaccuracy of such claims, she pointed to the Christian clergy who founded AU 75 years earlier and the clergy involved with the organization today.

Rev. Doug Avilesbernal, executive minister of the Evergreen Baptist Association of American Baptist Churches, also emphasized that point during a breakout session. A member of AU’s faith advisory board, he noted that “a good bit of the religious community and the Christian community has been fighting alongside [church-state] separation since before the United States existed.” He then recounted Baptist leaders like Roger Williams and John Leland who advocated for religious freedom for all people.

As several speakers noted throughout the weekend, that spirit is needed today among those of various faith traditions and none. So Laser introduced a new push to promote the separation of church and state. Borrowing from the language of the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance, AU is rolling out its “One Nation, All Beliefs” campaign to encourage people to speak out for religious freedom and the principle of church-state separation that makes it possible.

“We used to pledge to be ‘one nation indivisible’ until the 1950s when a surge of Christian Nationalism added ‘under God’ to the Pledge of Allegiance. It was an obvious effort to narrow who counts as true Americans,” Laser explained.

With a new surge of Christian Nationalism attacking church-state separation, Laser urged those present to push for a better way that protected the rights of all people.

“Together, we can rebuild the wall of separation between church and state,” she said. “Together, we can reclaim religious freedom as the shield it’s supposed to be.”

As a public witness,

Brian Kaylor

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