Church/State Separation—Where Is the Line?

Church/State Separation—Where Is the Line? January 6, 2017

starke floridaWhat is the fascination with putting Christian propaganda on public property? Is it a Tourette’s kind of thing, where some people just can’t avoid crossing the “Do Not Cross” line?

Another Christian display on public land

In 2012, a private Christian group erected a Ten Commandments monument on courthouse property in Starke, Florida. American Atheists fought to have the monument removed. They lost that fight, but they did force the county to create a “free speech zone” to permit monuments with other views, and a year later they erected their own atheist monument. To no one’s surprise, some Christians were displeased.

In “Atheists Flood the Public Square,” Benjamin Wiker sounds the alarm to concerned Christians*. This article came from tothesource, a site with the slogan, “Challenging hardcore secularism with principled pluralism.” (You mean like the hardcore secularism that’s defined in the U.S. Constitution?).

This year (2017) may be one where Christians are eager to let us know how oppressed they feel, so this Florida case is worth exploring.

Wiker imagines an elaborate game of chess (or chicken) where the atheists exploit loopholes in the system to frustrate honest, hardworking Christians who want nothing more than to exercise their freedom of religion. With luck, these atheists figure, they can so burden Christians that defending their God-given rights becomes too difficult and they retreat.

The strategy is to flood the monument market until Christians simply give up, give in, and move out.

I have no interest in taking rights away from Christians. I don’t think I’ve met an atheist who does. The problem may be that we disagree on the rights the Constitution gives to Christians.

Let’s be clear: the Constitution calls the shots. In the United States, the Constitution grounds our rights, not Christianity or the Bible. Religion is protected within American society because, and only because, the Constitution says so. That haven doesn’t come from God or the supernatural. It’s not part of some “natural law” outside humanity that everyone can sense.

If your attitude is that the Bible is your Constitution, don’t expect any respect for that opinion in a courtroom. In fact, the U.S. Constitution was the world’s first explicitly neutral constitution and its protections make it the Christian’s best friend.

I don’t get why this author is so agitated in the first place. Christianity doesn’t already have enough public displays of its message? Or is Christianity’s hold on its adherents so fragile that it needs to pull the government into proclaiming its message as well?

Ah, but atheism is a religion!

The game atheists play, according to Wiker, is to “flood the public square with monuments” to drive away the Christian ones. Eventually, we’ll have the atheists’ goal, the “naked public square.”

If we’re talking about the literal public square, then Wiker’s hysteria is off target. Again, no atheists are talking about removing free speech, religion included, from the public square. On the other hand, if we’re talking about the state-supported public square—schools, courthouses, and government buildings—then he’s exactly right. Atheists demand no religion or, failing that, equal access for all worldviews.

But don’t pretend that this is fair, Wiker tells us.

The truth is secular liberalism isn’t what you get when you subtract all religions. What you get when you subtract religion is another religion, secular liberalism, an entirely secular worldview dominated by materialism and hedonism and exceedingly intolerant of all other religions, especially Christianity.

Again, who wants this? I see the problem with materialism and hedonism. I see the problem with religious intolerance. What imaginary world of persecution has this guy created for himself?

But approach this from another angle. See him as Chicken Little, spreading alarm to rally the faithful, and his rant begins to make sense. Whipping up support through hysteria seems to be the goal, not honesty.

Christians, you’re on your own!

Christians can’t expect the government to protect Christianity; Wiker says they must do it themselves.

Face it, we Christians have become slothful. We wanted the government to ensure that we could enjoy all the benefits of living in a Christianized culture, without any of the work or sacrifice on our part—a kind of welfare mentality in regard to the faith.

As before (with the use of “public square”), he’s using words with several meanings. What’s a “Christianized culture”? If it’s a culture in which religion is protected, that’s something that I want as well. Dr. Wiker, show me where in America the right of Christianity to exist or Christians to profess their beliefs in the (literal) public square is under threat, and I’ll publicly express my support for your cause. The Constitution that doesn’t protect the Christian won’t protect the atheist either.

But if “Christianized culture” means a culture suffused with Christianity (“Merry Christmas” during the holidays, churches on every other corner, overwhelming church attendance), you’re on your own. Look to the market to support this. Don’t expect the government to help you out or even to care.

[Our mistake is that] we want the federal government to ensure that our faith is displayed publicly, even though we have done precious little to evangelize the public, so that more and more of the public is less and less Christian.

Who could possibly expect the federal government to display Christianity publicly? Only someone who hasn’t read the Constitution. The only reference to religion in the Constitution is to prohibit any religious test for public office, and the First Amendment says, “Government shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Just how weak is your faith that you would ever expect government help?

Continued with Wiker’s critique of the atheist monument here.

When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity.
When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a religion.
— Robert M. Pirsig

*This article is no longer available from tothesource.

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 9/4/13.)

Image credit: Wikimedia


"Responding to an old post that appears rather than recent posts that do not.The Spanish ..."

Games Creationists Play: 7 Tricks to ..."
"He doesn’t because . . . man lacks the honesty and critical self scrutiny necessary.Who's ..."

BSR 7: If God Existed, He ..."
"He doesn’t because . . . man lacks the honesty and critical self scrutiny necessary. ..."

BSR 7: If God Existed, He ..."
"Two days gone and only 44 comments???I dont like it..... no good for site's rating ..."

BSR 7: If God Existed, He ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Pofarmer

    What is the fascination with putting Christian propaganda on public property


    I’ve been listening to Dennis Praeger a little bit the last few days and I’m struck by the propaganda content of his show. This is just part of that, IMHO.

    • And one wonders how poor, persecuted, in-the-majority Christians might feel emboldened in the future.

    • Jim Jones

      Most all Christians are Powerball Christians (and oddly, Jesus always wants what they want, never the other way around).

      They “buy a ticket just in case” — they don’t study the bible or follow the rules but something meaningless like thanking god after 15 surgeons save their newborn or supporting a “fuck you” monument to the other religions, well, it costs them nothing.

      And you never know . . . like the Powerball.

  • The Bofa on the Sofa

    A better approach for confronting this, I think, is to bring the suit from a Catholic person. Because I can tell you right now the that the 10 Commandments shown on that monument are NOT the 10 Commandments in the Catholic Catechism. In particular, Commandment 2 does not appear in the Catholic version.

    Therefore, an argument against the 10 Commandment display is that is that is specifically the Protestant version of the 10C, and in choosing the Protestant version, the state is showing a preference for Protestant regions over Catholicism.

    Granted, it might require getting the funds to create a Catholic version to display, but wouldn’t that be great?

    Remember, the football game prayer lawsuit was brought by Catholics, not by atheists.

    This is the best way to get freedom from religion. Pit the religions against each other.

    • Great point. A more extreme approach to the “you’re not being inclusive on the 10 Cs” argument would be to demand the Exodus 34 version–y’know, the ones made after the first ones were smashed? They were the ones that made it into the Ark of the Covenant. And they’re hilariously different than the Ex. 20 version.

      • The_Wretched

        Also hilarious is that in the link god commands that violations be punished for 4 generations. That’s considered a human rights violation by the UN – no collective punishment and no visiting the crimes of the father onto the son.

        • Even more hilarious is that the Bible itself forbids this at another point. Ah, the contradictions.

    • eric

      Religion-in-school cases often have Christian plaintiffs objecting to whatever bad thing the school administration is doing. For example, IIRC Tammy Kitzmiller in the Dover case is Christian. But I’m not aware of that being the case for 10C monuments on public land. Of course maybe that’s just my ignorance, or it could be a real and curious difference; why do Christians join one type of suit but not the other? Perhaps they don’t object to other-sect displays of the 10C’s, because it’s ‘close enough’ to their beliefs to not be offensive.

    • Some of the earliest cases against teaching the Bible in public schools were brought by Catholics, as it was the Protestant version. On the other hand, anti-Catholic riots erupted in the 1840s when Catholics of Philadelphia public schools were allowed to learn their own version. This is a problem that they generally overlook when advocating we teach this in the public schools now (though hopefully it wouldn’t go to the point of riots).

      • Pofarmer

        (though hopefully it wouldn’t go to the point of riots).

        I dunno, I think it would be an eye opener if it would.

        • Perhaps. I’d just prefer people weren’t hurt.

  • Mr. A

    It’s funny how they claim we discrimate against other religions, when we can’t even get a damn Christmas sign up without some asshole tearing it down. Christians make up ~90% of the government right now, and they think they’re being persecuted? Please.

    This is nothing more than a power grab motive. They want all the rights for themselves.

    • When you right the pendulum, those who’d been benefiting from the previous system complain.

  • Otto

    I don’t get why this author is so agitated in the first place. Christianity doesn’t already have enough public displays of its message?

    I would liken it to a dog marking its territory. Some Christians see the Gov’t and it’s holdings as theirs. They see they are privileged as the majority in the country so they figure they should be privileged from the gov’t too.

    • The_Wretched

      Which is why they want the creches on the lawn of the governmental building and rarely even have them at churches.

  • adam

    “Just how weak is your faith that you would ever expect government help?”

    Literally, UNBELIEVABLY weak…

    • Jim Jones

      “It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so, and will follow it by suppressing opposition, subverting all education to seize early the minds of the young, and by killing, locking up, or driving underground all heretics.”

      “When any government, or any church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, ‘This you may not read, this you may not see, this you are forbidden to know,’ the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives. Mighty little force is needed to control a man whose mind has been hoodwinked; contrariwise, no amount of force can control a free man, a man whose mind is free. No, not the rack, not fission bombs, not anything — you can’t conquer a free man; the most you can do is kill him.”

      — Robert Heinlein

      History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.

      [Thomas Jefferson, to Alexander von Humboldt, December 6, 1813]

      • MNb

        “furnishes no example of ….”
        I can’t think of one.

  • Michael Neville

    What you get when you subtract religion is another religion, secular liberalism

    This is a major part of Wiker’s complaint. His religion might be supplanted by another religion that he doesn’t subscribe to. Christianity is privileged in the US and some of that privilege might disappear.

    • Kodie

      I think this is so paranoid. Many times, a Christian has argued to me that if we didn’t like Christianity dictating every law and every policy, etc., surely Muslim sharia law would fill the void of secularity. I don’t know why it’s so hard to understand the 1st amendment protects people’s beliefs, and protects the rest of us, including them, from Muslim sharia law, just for example. We don’t need to be evangelized at court and school, and that takes away none of their rights to believe and talk about their beliefs.

      • And when there are millions of brown Muslims surging over the border, just remember that you had millions of armed Christians ready to respond but you made them not Christian. Or took away their guns. Or something.

        • gimpi1

          Because the military has ceased to exit or something…

  • The_Wretched

    The history of the SOCAS is telling. There were multiple versions and the founders went with and wanted the one with the most stringent separation that they could thing of linguistically.

  • Greg G.

    For everybody’s quote file:

    Jesus came preaching the Kingdom, and what arrived was the Church. –Alfred Firmin Loisy
    (“Jésus annonçait le Royaume et c’est l’Église qui est venue”: Loisy 1902)

  • eric

    Hands up if you think ‘principled pluralism’ consists of “we got both kids of religion here mister – Protestant and Catholic.”

    Very much the way Christian fundies throw around the term “Judeo-Christian” to describe western civilization, when in fact European Christians historically spent many centuries attacking, killing, and/or trying to eliminate the local judeos. Pluralism, this ain’t.

    • Pofarmer

      when in fact European Christians historically spent many centuries
      attacking, killing, and/or trying to eliminate the local judeos.

      Or anything that wasn’t specifically Christian, or even the proper brand of Christianity.

      • Jim Jones

        Or sometimes even the proper brand:

        Kill them all. God will know his own.

        • Those were “collateral damage”.

        • Kevin K

          Feature, not a bug.

        • The feature of what?

        • Kevin K

          Killing those who wear their hats in a different way than you has been a feature of religion since the first religion was invented by the smart guy who figured out a way to keep from working in the fields with all the other shlubs.

        • It’s common yes.

  • Rt1583

    These things could be shut down pretty quickly if we held them to task for items #2 and #4.

    By #2 they can’t have their precious display. They are breaking their own commandment in this.

    By #4 they should be doing nothing other than attending church, regular bodily functions and meditating on god. This would mean no recreation, no football, no shopping, no of so many other things. Again, they are breaking their own commandment in this.

    Of course they will find a way to whitewash their way around these stumbling blocks.

  • Sophia Sadek

    Beware hedonism: cats and dogs living together. Shock, horror!

  • Kodie

    [Our mistake is that] we want the federal government to ensure that our
    faith is displayed publicly, even though we have done precious little to
    evangelize the public, so that more and more of the public is less and
    less Christian.

    Yes, their “mistake” was letting the government govern and slowly come to realize it was establishing a religion, which it pledges not to do. They had taken it for granted that most of the country was Christian, and nobody minded. What irritates them is that they still think most people don’t mind and it’s one loud-mouthed spoiler who would like to be able to go to school without having religion preached to them.

    More and more of the public is less and less Christian because they are. They weren’t impressed by statues and displays everywhere they were forced to be by law. The thing that they really don’t get is how it feels when you are not the same kind of believer or not a believer, and you think the government won’t protect you at all because they have these crosses and commandments on the lawn. If you ask the police for help, and their cars say something about the lord, and you don’t believe in the lord, it’s absolutely a threat against you, as an American with the same rights drawn into the Constitution as every other American. It’s an establishment and a declarations that the government prefers to help out Christians and leave others without help.

    I really don’t understand how they can be so dense. It’s like the charities that only feed you if they can tell you about the bible first, you know the only one in front of all the stores at Christmastime ringing a bell, the one most people don’t realize is its own Christian denomination, because their PR doesn’t get into all the details. It’s just big, and owns Christmas and owns feeding the poor and owns running a charity thrift store, so how can it be bad? If you donate your car, you help someone get off drugs (vaguely). The way these regular Christians shit about protest of a banner or display or football-coach-led pre-game prayer, it’s like when they have the power, they don’t notice the abuse of power inherent in it, but they are hypersensitive about that power being removed so they have the equal amount of power and rights as everyone else. Same as everyone else isn’t less! It’s the same. More is abuse, the same is the same. Nobody talked about taking away their rights to believe.

    • rabbit

      I understand your point, but, though I am an atheist, I support the group to which you refer. It is one of the few charities that actually helps people. Most of the others, including the Red Cross, just make rich people richer. The group you were talking about is not at all vague in their alcohol treatment programs. Certainly, their approach does not save everyone who tries their program (drugs now used in Europe are probably better for many), but they have a definite professionally-supported in-patient program involving people with addiction in the recovery efforts of others. Because they know all the BS, they brook no nonsense. The group you are talking about is often the first to come in with real help after a disaster, unlike tax-shelter “foundations” that collect money, and then distribute hardly any of it. I am cynical about all charities, now. The one you are talking about is certainly a religion. They do not deny it, but at least they are trying to help others.

  • eric

    With luck, these atheists figure, they can so burden Christians that
    defending their God-given rights becomes too difficult and they retreat.

    Does he explain how letting someone else put up a holiday display is a “burden” on Christians? You applied for the same thing you always do, in the same way you always did. Your propsal got accepted the way it always does. You put up your display the way you always do. Where’s the burden?

    This seems very much like Microsoft complaining about Apple putting out an effective product ad. They are burdened with competition, and wish for a monopoly.

  • Pofarmer

    speaking of Propaganda.

    Why rural America voted for Trump.

    I think we have a generation of young Americans who have been propagandized. I blame Fox News, and Rush LImbaugh and all the rest. They present an easy black and white dichotomy where, as Dennis Praeger says “The Left is Never right.”

    • Myna

      That was a good article, and insightful comments, too. The Washington Post would do well to start vetting the responses, both pro and con, like the NYT does. The trolls are diminishing the articles over at the WaPo, which, of course, is the troll’s purpose.

      The tragic consequence of Fox and Limbaugh is that its myriad listeners begin to actually think in talking points rather than in examination of substance. To consult the ideologue as the unquestioned source of truth is to abdicate one’s own critical mind. It’s how Trump got elected. It’s how religions keep their coffers full. Add celebrity to the mix, and you’ve got a deadly potion.

      • Pofarmer

        And all of that is why I’m not looking forward to the next several years at all.

        • Myna

          I sympathize wholeheartedly.

          In one of my favorite NYT comments ever, someone with the initials LC writing from France, wrote: “Thanks to Trump, I’ve finally read Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ from cover to cover. The agony of reading this book is nothing compared to the torture of witnessing this imbecile take America to the gutter.”

          I liked the comment so much that I copied it down, but forgot to reference the exact article it was in response to. I think it was just this last Friday. I suppose it doesn’t matter, though. It could have been on any one and still be relevant.

      • Pofarmer

        is that its myriad listeners begin to actually think in talking points rather than in examination of substance.

        It’s not even that. They don’t even think. It’s always “Us” = right and “them” = wrong. I’ve tried to have these conversations on Facebook. “Regulations are killing businesses.” “Which Regulations?” “All Regulations, do away with them all!!” Gah. Thinking is hard.

        • Leyla1001nights

          I have the same response when people claim President Obama was a failure and I ask them why they believe that. I haven’t gotten answer yet.

        • Pofarmer

          Because they’ve been listening to Sean Hannity tell them that.

  • Guthrum

    There continues to be worry about the dollar, even with some positive factors occurring in the economy. Some of this may be due to currency problems in Europe, particularly Germany. Will the dollar decline in 2017? Will there be a monetary fund adjustment or change ?

    • Max Doubt

      “Will the dollar decline in 2017? Will there be a monetary fund adjustment or change ?”

      When you want to express your paranoia or conspiracy fears like this, especially when your personal problems aren’t related in any way to the topic of this blog, the polite thing to do is to start your own blog.

    • Michael Neville

      You’re ignoring the really important questions: Will John Crichton ever make it back to Earth? Will Bill O’Reilly ever stop padding his resume? Who will lead The Resistance now that Carrie Fisher is dead?

  • Wuulf

    The thing that they are most afraid of losing is the generous tax exemptions that religions enjoy.

    • rabbit

      I think they are afraid of losing the informal culture domination they have enjoyed until recently. Churches are closing in cities. They have become concert halls in New York. Young people are not joining, or if they join, are not staying. Their authoritarian, corrupt establishment is crumbling and even they speak of a “post-Christian” era. Christianity will never disappear, of course, but they are right. It will not ever again be what it was.

  • lady_black

    It helps if you think of it as a pissing contest. Because basically, that’s what it is. Perceived territory marking.

    • adam

      Which is why those with small ‘hands’ need to puff out their chest so much and pat themselves on the back all the time.

  • busterggi

    I work for local government and there is zero separation here. I don’t say anything as I prefer to have a job.

    • Michael Neville

      Quite often we have to put up with nonsense to keep three hots and a cot.

    • evodevo

      Ayup… anywhere in a small town in the South (or indiana or idaho LOL) you take your life in your hands declaring your support for secularity …

  • busterggi

    Can I take it for granted that the obligatory clip from Blazing Saddles has already been posted?

  • Kevin K

    The Lemon test: First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not foster “an excessive government entanglement with religion.”