Monday morning I woke up to news that the new US embassy in Jerusalem was being formally opened, and that at least 43 Palestinians had been killed while protesting it. Every other country that has diplomatic relations with Israel (there are 86) has their embassy in Tel Aviv. Religious conservatives in the US have long advocated moving our embassy to Jerusalem – previous Presidents of both parties have declined, for diplomatic reasons. Donald Trump – who has no concept of diplomacy – moved the embassy as political payment to his fundamentalist Christian and rightwing Jewish supporters.
The local news stations here in North Texas played up the fact that Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the huge First Baptist Church of Dallas, was selected to give the opening prayer. Jeffress has been the most vocal and visible of Trump’s fundamentalist supporters, eager to trade his endorsement for access to events such as this, and ignoring the pleas of his fellow Christians to preach the gospel of Jesus instead of hatred and warmongering.
Jeffress is also known for preaching anti-LGBT sermons, calling Mormonism “a cult” and Islam “a heresy from the pit of hell.” No word on what he thinks of Pagans, but I can take a pretty good guess.
He’s thrilled to be part of this event, not just because he gets to hang out with a handful of minor celebrities and third-tier government officials (verily, he has his reward) but because he believes the more established and recognized the government of Israel is, the closer he gets to the Rapture.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz and San Antonio preacher John Hagee were there too – more true believers ready to start World War III to bring about the end of the world.
This post is not about where the US embassy in Israel should be, or if it should be. It’s not about the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. It’s not even about the insanity of apocalyptic thinking. This post is about how this story illustrates the need for clear separation of church and state, and just what that important phrase actually means.
Freedom of religion means freedom to advocate
I often come across Facebook friends posting memes that essentially say religion should be a private matter. Believe what you want, go to the church you like, keep whatever quaint customs and practices you want, but keep it to yourself.
That’s not freedom, any more than “I don’t care who you sleep with, but I don’t want to see two men kissing in public” is freedom. Freedom means I get to be me and you get to be you. As much as I detest street preachers, I support their right to preach… at least until they start inciting violence.
Beyond that, our religions help us decide what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s harmful and what’s helpful. I would never attempt to use the power of government to coerce the worship of the Gods, but I will absolutely vote for candidates who support my belief that the Earth is sacred and is due our reverent care, even if they express it differently. My belief that different Gods call different people to worship Them in different ways leads me to advocate for a religiously plural society.
So if Robert Jeffress wants to use his pulpit to advocate for moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, so be it. But that’s far from all he’s doing.
Government officials are required to respect the First Amendment
Government officials do not give up their religious freedoms when they take office. They are still free to believe and practice as they see fit. And they can no more separate their values and positions into “religious” and “secular” than the rest of us can.
I don’t care if you believe the Earth is a living and sacred being, or if you believe the Earth is your God’s creation – I just want you to care for the Earth. And likewise, I don’t care if you believe your God gave humans dominion over the Earth or if you believe the Earth is just dead matter so we might as well exploit it – I’m going to vote against you every chance I get. Whether a political position is religiously or secularly motivated is impossible to determine and ultimately irrelevant.
But government officials are not free to use their offices to promote their religions. The establishment clause forbids favoring one religion over others, or over none. And officials are not free to use the power of government to promote religious goals, whether those goals are increasing their church membership, coercing non-members into following their practices, or bringing about the Rapture.Yes, government officials at all levels have done this. Yes, it was legal at the time. Slavery was legal at one time too – the law is no indication of virtue. Where mistakes are made, the proper response is “we’ll do better next time” not “we did it before so we can do it again.”
What is the role of religion in public life? I’m OK with what former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor called “ceremonial deism” – brief, generic prayers at public events. And I’m OK with the practice of some local governments to rotate invocations among religions, so long as they include all religions, including Hindus, Muslims, Pagans, atheists, and Satanists.
But an exclusivist minister of one particular religion – never mind one whose beliefs are at odds with a majority of Americans – representing the United States at the dedication of a new diplomatic building in a foreign country? That’s well into “establishment” territory.
The fact that Trump selected Jeffress for his own domestic political motives does not outweigh the essential religious nature of this act. This invocation blew up the wall between church and state and violated the spirit of the First Amendment, if not its letter.
Government officials are required to put country over religion
When John F. Kennedy ran for President in 1960, his Catholicism was a major issue. Anti-Catholics claimed electing Kennedy would mean US policy would be dictated by the Vatican. As a candidate, Kennedy gave a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association (all of whom were Protestants) where he proclaimed his devotion to his country and his support for religious tolerance. The speech is not long and is well worth reading. His key point was this:
But if the time should ever come — and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible — when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.
A President with the wisdom and stature of Kennedy would tell Rev. Jeffress “I thank you for your counsel, but the American people and the cause of justice are better served if we leave our embassy in Tel Aviv until Israel and Palestine are living together in peace.”
Trump simply saw a chance for a payoff that doesn’t cost a dime out of his own pocket.
We need true separation of church and state
There is very little Donald Trump has done as President that I agree with. Such is life – he won the election. We can blame Russia’s interference and Hillary’s incompetent campaign all we like. Trump still won, for reasons those of us of a liberal persuasion had better be prepared to deal with in the coming months.
That victory entitles him to set policy and priorities, within the checks and balances of our constitutional framework. But that same constitutional framework explicitly forbids him from favoring one religion over another (or over none) in official capacity. This move violates the separation of church and state, both in why it was done and how it was celebrated on Monday.
So now our embassy is in Jerusalem, the US stands alone in an area where consensus and solidarity are needed, and the protests and their violent suppression have begun. Is the location of an embassy worth 43 lives?
And Robert Jeffress is giddy with glee in the belief that he’s had a hand in hastening the end of the world.
When Jeffress lies on his deathbed and the Rapture still hasn’t happened, when LGBT people still hold Pride parades through the streets of Dallas, and when Muslims and Mormons – and Pagans – are even more numerous and visible in the fabric of the United States, I wonder if he’ll still enjoy his thirty pieces of silver?
May his God have mercy on his soul.