This is a guest post written by David G. McAfee. He is author, most recently, of The Belief Book.
The separation of church and state, championed by thinking believers and non-believers alike across the United States, has been a key part of the country’s success since the First Amendment was adopted in 1791. This separation not only protects freedom of (and from) religion by ensuring the government isn’t affiliated with any particular faith; it also protects religions themselves from possible political interference. It was thought up by our Founding Fathers early on and has been upheld and expanded by the U.S. Supreme Court ever since.
But even with all these advantages, some people want to tear down the Wall of Separation. Here are the most serious threats against secularism in modern America:
You might know that “In God We Trust” first appeared on an American two-cent coin in 1864 and that it was first printed on paper currency in 1957 in response to those “Communist” atheists, but did you know the use of the national “motto” has recently been expanded further?
Just this year, the phrase was added to all vehicles at the Stone County Sheriff’s Department in Missouri, the Bay County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, ambulances in Lamesa, Texas, the police department in Childress, Texas, and similar places across the country. This trend will likely continue until we are able to change our national motto, “In God We Trust,” to something else. Personally, I say we bring back our old national motto, “E pluribus unum,” Latin for “Out of many, one.”
Whether it’s school prayers in Arkansas, a California principal forcing a seventh-grade student to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, teachers in Louisiana distributing Creationist materials in science classes, or football coaches using practice time to proselytize, the separation of church and state is under attack at schools and by teachers and administrators across the country. These are institutions that are supposed to be educating the next generation — making children smarter and better equipped to be productive citizens — but many adults there are using the opportunity to instead push their particular form of Christianity.
There are a large number of Christians in the United States and, as a result, there are a lot of Christians elected to political offices across the branches of our government. Is that itself a threat to secularization? No, not really. There are a lot of Christians who support the separation of church and state and understand its benefits for the religious communities and non-believers alike. Unfortunately, the Christians that Americans are electing are, in many cases, not these people. From Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee to Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, Christian fundamentalists are flooding the political scene and pushing their unique brand of outdated morality. Many of these people, such as Rick Santorum, actually see “secular” as a bad word. They see separation of church and state as the enemy.
A lot of Americans believe that the United States was formed as a “Christian Nation,” despite the fact that there is little to no evidence that this is the case. The fact is that, while the original 13 colonies under British rule were in fact outposts of a Christian government, with American independence came religious freedom. Amanda Porterfield, a professor of religion at Florida State University and author of Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation, says evangelical Christianity “gained popularity as a reactive force against deism and open ridicule of religion” in the 1790s.
Evangelical efforts to make America a Christian nation justified territorial expansion, while division over slavery solidified competing visions of Christian nationhood.
Today’s claims about America’s founding as a Christian nation derive from this 19th-century effort to overcome the skeptical reasoning and secular principles so important in the nation’s founding.
One of the top five biggest threats to separation of church and state is also the simplest: many Americans simply don’t care. They and their families have reaped the benefits of the Establishment Clause for generations, but now they take it for granted. To many, religious monuments on government property, prayers before school football games, and $83.5 billion per year in religious subsidies just don’t seem like much of an issue. Or maybe they don’t care because they don’t vote anyway and they think all politicians are the same.
The federal government and about 20 states have passed “religious freedom” laws that are intended to protect religious people from having their beliefs and practices suppressed by the laws of the land. The problem is that those laws have been twisted to protect otherwise unlawful discriminatory practices. It’s perfectly acceptable to have your beliefs, but it’s not okay to deny people their right to marry as Kim Davis did, or to refuse services to gay people because you consider homosexuality to be a sin. Religious freedom laws are being abused by the Christian Right and, if that trend continues, we will see what amounts to a religious takeover of our legal system.
A lot of Americans are ready to move toward a Christian theocracy (even if they don’t see it that way) because of their fundamental hatred for… Muslims and Muslim theocracies. Instead of seeing how similar these faiths are, both being religious governments based on traditions stemming from Judaism, these American Christians see their system as the way to prevent the spread of radical Islam. The only way to stop Sharia law, they reason, is by implementing more Christian laws.
There is, of course, no evidence to suggest that Islamic law is going to “replace the Constitution,” but overreactions from international reports have caused a lot of fear mongering and speculation about the issue. This has caused more and more Christians to call for the institution of Biblical law as a preventative measure. This phenomenon is especially interesting considering the fact that the New America Foundation found that twice as many people have died in attacks by right-wing groups in America than by Muslim extremists since 9/11.
No, that’s not a typo. I think the biggest threat to separation of church and state in the United States is a lack of religious education: American children and teenagers just don’t learn about religion in schools as much as they should. There are a number of factors that contribute to this trend, but, according to Joseph Laycock, a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School’s Program in Religion and Secondary Education, it all boils down to the fact that religion makes administrators “extremely nervous.”
I continually encountered colleagues who believed that the Constitution requires public schools to be “religion-free zones.” This notion is not only inaccurate; it undermines the very educational standards that public schools are charged with teaching.
Why should administrators be nervous? Because the citizens themselves don’t always understand what separation means, and there’s a lot of misinformation out there. We not only have conservative radio hosts who claim “liberals” are trying to make it so that “you can’t say God in the classroom” (and entire books dedicated to that idea), but we also have Christian parents who protest when their children learn basic facts about the tenets of other faiths in World History class. In some cases, schools have even canceled field trips to local mosques as a result of complaints from concerned Christian parents.
What’s the result of this lack of formal religious education? Religious literacy for Americans is extremely low. A 2005 report by the Bible Literacy Project, for instance, found that fewer than 10 percent of teenagers could even name all five of the major world religions and 15 percent couldn’t name any.
What else do we know? When you learn about religions and where they come from in an academic setting, you are less likely to be religious. We know this because we can see that non-believers are generally more knowledgeable about religions than their believing counterparts, as well as based on comparisons between religious affiliation statistics in the United States versus countries in Europe with compulsory religious education courses.
This, to me, shows the makings of a disaster. We are creating generations of people who are more likely to identify as religious, probably because they are getting most of their lessons about religion from religious parents, yet less likely to understand the phenomenon itself. This combination can lead to the type of American religious fundamentalism that serves as the number one most terrifying threat to our separation of church and state.
David G. McAfee is a Religious Studies graduate, journalist, and author of The Belief Book, a children’s book explaining the origins of beliefs and religion, and Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist: The Guide to Coming Out as a Non-believer. He is also an editor for Ockham Publishing and a contributor to American Atheist Magazine. McAfee attended University of California, Santa Barbara, and graduated with bachelor’s degrees in English and Religious Studies with an emphasis on Christianity and Mediterranean religions.
(Image via Shutterstock)