There has been considerable buzz in the blogosphere lately about a bill pending in Missouri that would supposedly make Christianity the “state’s official religion”.
When I first heard this news, suitably apocalyptic thoughts occurred to me, as I’m sure they did to many of you. Declaring an official state religion is the essence of theocracy, and from there it is only a very short step to banning other religions and outlawing dissent; and in the current climate of religious extremism, it was looking disturbingly plausible that such measures might actually be upheld. (At least one current Supreme Court justice, Clarence Thomas, actually has voiced the view that states are not bound by the First Amendment, for example.)
However, I’ve looked into this story in more detail, and we nonbelievers and others can relax – at least a little. The state of church-state separation in America is bad, but not that bad. This bill is without a doubt misguided, wrong and woefully ignorant of both history and law, but it is not quite as frightening as it has been made out to be.
Here is the full text of the bill, House Concurrent Resolution 13:
Whereas, our forefathers of this great nation of the United States recognized a Christian God and used the principles afforded to us by Him as the founding principles of our nation; and
Whereas, as citizens of this great nation, we the majority also wish to exercise our constitutional right to acknowledge our Creator and give thanks for the many gifts provided by Him; and
Whereas, as elected officials we should protect the majority’s right to express their religious beliefs while showing respect for those who object; and
Whereas, we wish to continue the wisdom imparted in the Constitution of the United States of America by the founding fathers; and
Whereas, we as elected officials recognize that a Greater Power exists above and beyond the institutions of mankind:
Now, therefore, be it resolved by the members of the House of Representatives of the Ninety-third General Assembly, Second Regular Session, the Senate concurring therein, that we stand with the majority of our constituents and exercise the common sense that voluntary prayer in public schools and religious displays on public property are not a coalition of church and state, but rather the justified recognition of the positive role that Christianity has played in this great nation of ours, the United States of America.
First of all, this is not a law with legal force, but a resolution – a non-binding statement expressing the sense of the legislature. Second, as one can see from reading it, the bill does not declare Christianity the “official religion” of Missouri. It does express support for prayer in schools and Ten Commandments displays in courthouses, but that is not the same thing as the legal establishment of a Taliban-style Christian theocracy. Granted, it is still a sad comment on how bad things have gotten that such religiously-inspired ignorance as this might be enshrined into law. But at least for the moment, there seems to be no danger of non-Christians being rounded up and herded into camps.
That said, this bill is still a terrible idea, and it seems worthwhile to dissect its inaccuracies clause by clause.
First: the claim that America’s founders “recognized” the Christian god is a deliberately deceptive term of equivocation. If by “recognized”, does the bill mean that many of them believed in some form of Christianity? That is certainly true. But if by “recognized” it means that they sought to give Christianity any favored status in law, that is absolutely false. Many of America’s founders had seen firsthand the terrible effects of state-supported religious persecution, which is why they wrote a Constitution that was aimed at putting an end to it once and for all by separating religion from government. This bill deceptively implies that the founders’ personal faith means that they would have supported attempts to establish that faith by law, which is obviously disproved by the fact that the founders themselves had an opportunity to do that and chose not to. (In addition: Which “founding principles” of this country were derived from Christianity? As “The Wall” points out, the rights most fundamental to the American system are nowhere to be found in the Bible, in which the approved form of government is divine-right monarchy. Rather, the American system of government derives from the secular tradition of the Enlightenment.)
Second and third: In America, everyone, not just the majority, has always had the right to practice their beliefs as they see fit. This right is guaranteed by the Constitution and needs no additional protection. This is just the standard religious right tactic of claiming persecution, crying that their beliefs are under attack, as a way of gaining cover for their attempts to give their religion special privileges by law. In reality, the claim that Christianity needs to be “protected” from anything is ludicrous, considering that Christians constitute the vast majority of the population and control all three branches of government.
Fourth: This bill does not “continue” the wisdom of the Constitution, but is in direct opposition to its most important principles. The real wisdom of the Constitution was in separating church and state, not in supporting underhanded efforts to sneak theocracy in through the back door.
Fifth: This is probably the most blatantly unconstitutional part of the entire bill. Although individual legislators are free to hold whatever religious beliefs they like, they have absolutely no right under the Constitution to make any official “recognition” of whether a god exists or not. The very purpose of the First Amendment was to protect the individual’s right to make that decision for themselves, without interference from government officials. The ones who voted for this bill seem to have forgotten that they are lawmakers, not priests.
Sixth: The final clause contains the standard religious right twisting of the First Amendment. Voluntary prayer in public schools has always been protected, religious right lies to the contrary. More likely, the bill is referring to the practice of letting school administrators choose and compose prayers for the students to recite, or for them to do this by proxy by letting students get together and vote on which prayers should be said at official school functions. Both of these practices are flatly unconstitutional. As Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson said so well: “The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy. One’s right to life, liberty and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly may not be submitted to vote; they depend on no elections.”
“Religious displays”, such as the Ten Commandments, on public property, are just as obviously unconstitutional. Since this bill appeals to “common sense”, it is equally common sense that for the government to erect one set of religious principles exclusively constitutes an endorsement of that religion. Again, under the First Amendment, this is ground upon which government may not tread. Private citizens and churches can erect religious displays on their property to their heart’s content, but the government’s purpose is to represent citizens of all faiths and of none. We all own areas of public property, and no one group has the right to use that property to advance its own religious views to the exclusion of others.
Finally, regarding the “positive role” that Christianity has played in United States history, this verdict is a highly slanted and selective version of the truth. Without a doubt there have been Christian individuals and groups who have done tremendous good, but dedicated, pious Christians have been on both sides of every important political controversy and social-rights movement, from the emancipation of slaves to the granting of women’s suffrage to the ending of segregation. There were people quoting the Bible and warning of the wrath of God who stood on the wrong side of every one of these controversies. To gloss over this ugly truth, as the religious right would like to do, is to present a deceptive and distorted picture of the history of the United States of America to serve their partisan ends – and this, after all, is the religious right’s stock in trade.
UPDATE: Afarensis receives an e-mail reply from one of the sponsors of the bill.
Other posts in this series: