By Linda Stamato
The Founding Fathers abhorred the concept of a national religion. They believed that state support, in the long run, would harm the faith, not help it. We would do well to revisit their thinking and the experiences that gave rise to it, as we increasingly face a push to create a national religion, quite often by those who think we already have one: Christianity. .
At the forefront of faith-based movements is Christian nationalism a loose network of think tanks, political groups, activist organizations, legal advocacy groups, conservative pastoral groups, reactionary religious leaders, right-wing Catholics and a variety of malcontents, who, indeed, seek to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both Christianity and American constitutional democracy.
Putting aside the wisdom of the founding fathers, they work to advance their interests politically. The GOP is cynically forcing — to advance its own power and influence.
While the First Amendment’s free exercise clause makes it clear that the government “shall make no law…prohibiting the free exercise of religion”, the high court showed a preference for one religion over others.
A religious tribunal
Indeed, rather than acting to protect minorities or dissident practitioners, for example, as he did when he denied to a Muslim prisoner on death row, access to an imam to pray with him during his execution (while allowing Christian chaplains access to this same execution chamber for the same purpose), the high court used the religious clauses to favor mainly dominant Christian beliefs. He allowed a coach to pray openly on a school sports field (Kennedy vs. Bermerton) and the use of public funds for private schools (Carson vs Makin).
We’ll see what happens if a lawsuit filed by a synagogue in South Florida, challenging the state’s abortion ban, saying it violates religious freedom, reaches the high court. In Jewish law, according to the lawsuit, “abortion is required if necessary to protect the health, mental and physical well-being of the woman.”
Preferring one set of religious beliefs when they oppose another is precisely what the Founding Fathers were trying to avoid.
At all levels of nation’s courts, there has been a politicization of religious freedom. As a result, we see doctors refusing care, pharmacists refuse to fill prescriptions, and denial of services of any kind, including denial of permission for adoptions, requiring employees to participate (or not participate) in religious activity as a condition of employment. These practices are just some of the growing claims for exclusion, based on conscience or religious objection, that are making their way through the courts. Quite often, they seem less confessional than political or cultural.
The Supreme Court returns
Soon, the Supreme Court will hear arguments again, and critics fear it may be ready to strike down more protections in areas such as marriage rights, health care and transgender rights, as it did. has done with abortion, regulation (West Virginia vs. EPA) and prayer (Carson vs Makin). As High Court decisions infect Republican-controlled states, we are witnessing the erosion of trust and fear of loss of previously protected rights, when religious practices and beliefs replace secular procedures and practices and professionals.
The GOP saw strategic advantage in blurring the separation of church and state. Indeed, former President Trump offered those who “would buy it”, a corrupted version of American Christianity, co-opting the trappings of faith to make his amoral politics – indeed his very election – the will of God. “The ‘buy-in’ lasts because, even without Trump, the alignment between God and the GOP borders on merging, putting both state and church at risk.
So it’s no surprise to find Doug Mastriano, Trump’s sidekick and Republican gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania, proclaiming, campaigning, nothing less, that “the separation of Church and State is a myth” and that it is time for Christians to “take back” political power. Or for MP Lauren Boebert to indicate that she was “tired of this church separation and state junk” and that “the the church is supposed to run the governmentthe government is not supposed to run the church.
What may result from this cynical abuse of Christianity, however, is that religion will be seen as merely a means to another end, just as America’s growing secularization appears, at least in part, as a backlash against the use of religion for partisan ends.
If the impulses of religion are poured into politics, consider that politics may also be poured into religion. As a result, there is growing disinterest and disappointment with religious institutions. The intrusion of religious institutions into secular life can force people to evaluate what religion is and why people hold to it. Spirituality seems to have little to do with it.
No religious tests
The nation’s founding fathers, led by Madison, believed that government should not have the power to influence its citizens towards or away from a specific religion.
Madison was moved to post “The Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” to confirm his position and that of his colleagues. He lists 15 reasons why state-sponsored religion is a bad idea. Aimed primarily at Christian clergy and believers throughout Virginia, the “remonstrance” was designed to establish that state support, in the long run, would harm the faith, not help it.
Now may be the time for Americans to read this document.
A state ruled by religion leans towards intolerance and is unable to sustain a pluralist democracy. Take it from Pope Francis who recently observed that secular governments espousing a separation of church and state have shown more success throughout history while emphasizing that such policies must be strict to ensure religious freedom for all.
A nation as diverse as America must consider the current drive to weaken the separation of church and state, even to resist the creation, for all intents and purposes, of a national religion.
In the American experience, faith has been deployed to suppress as well as to liberate, to exclude as well as to include, to control as well as to liberate. Thus, to link faith to the state is to risk the implosion of both. Religion outside of the state can support social stability, but fused with the state, it undermines diversity, inclusion, and indeed the protection of religious freedom for all religions.
Linda Stamato is a senior policy researcher at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. She is the founder and current co-director of the Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution.
Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today at NJ.com.