In the early summer of 1844, a series of riots broke out in Philadelphia leading to 32 deaths, more than a hundred injuries, and the burning of dozens of homes and public buildings. The reason these riots broke out wasn’t hunger or political oppression or previous acts of violence. No, the reason these riots occurred was that all Philadelphia schools at the time began each day with a Bible reading and one Christian group wanted their children to be allowed to read from a different version. Because Protestants made up the majority of Philadelphia’s population, teachers read to the children from the Protestant version of the Bible. But Catholics had begun to emigrate from Europe in large numbers (this was the year before the infamous potato famine, which would soon bring even larger numbers), bringing with them their own version of the Bible, complete with apocryphal books and commentary in the margins. This led to no small disagreement between the competing factions of Christians and it was rumored that one school director even suggested the Bible readings be dropped altogether because of the strife which the denominational differences were creating. This outraged the Protestants and soon mobs of both factions formed and attacked each other, firing shots and burning down homes and churches all over the district. Eventually the military was called in to quell the violence and the City of Brotherly Love learned to keep better law enforcement from that point onward.
This should have never happened in a country founded on religious pluralism. History demonstrates that whenever a religion wields civic power it tends to make sure everyone adheres…or else. Many of the most influential of our “founding fathers” understood this, which is why they intentionally framed the American system of government in such a way as to avoid religious entanglements. They crafted a constitution which explicitly forbade religious tests for leaders (see Article VI) and included an express prohibition of favoring one religion over another (see Establishment Clause) which would later come to extend to those schools and offices run by the government, including public schools. But the devout have a short memory for civics lessons, and many seem quick to forget that keeping church and state separate benefits the religious as much as it benefits the non-religious. It’s not just something the godless want; it’s something that keeps one faction of the Christian church (or the adherents of any other religion) from resorting to coercion or even violence to protect its place of privileged power over everyone else in the public sphere.
Two Competing Histories
Sometimes it’s not merely a matter of forgetfulness, though. Sometimes people deliberately rewrite the history books to downplay the compromises struck during our nation’s earliest days because they believe that the higher-profile framers of the constitution like Jefferson and Madison got it wrong. Jefferson spoke of deliberately maintaining a “wall of separation between church and state,” a phrase he borrowed from the early Baptists.* Patrick Henry, however, represented an alternative vision held by many early Americans in which church membership would be mandatory and all citizens would financially support either the official church of their state or else a denomination of their choosing. “Give me liberty or give me death,” he became famous for saying. Evidently like many of his day, he wanted freedom for himself and his own religion, but wasn’t so concerned about extending that to everyone else. He was taken with Calvinistic theology, which countenances no separation between church and state and holds that only men of Christian faith should lead a nation. Jefferson once wrote of Henry to Madison:
What we have to do I think is devoutly pray for his death…
LOL. Clearly Henry distinguished himself as one not inclined to compromise. As with the Evangelicals of today, compromise was for him a bad word. And while Jesus reportedly said, “My kingdom is not of this world,” his followers often seem bound and determined to change that.
Incidentally Henry was not the only one who failed to consistently apply his passion for personal liberty. Jefferson himself penned the famous words that “all men are created equal,” but he himself owned hundreds of slaves over the course of his lifetime. Apparently he only meant that all white men are created equal, and of course he didn’t say all women. Non-whites and women would have to wait many years before they were treated any more equally. In both cases it has taken years of struggle, public appeal, protest, and litigation to force American society to become more consistent with its own founding principles, irrespective of how consistently the founders themselves applied their own ideas. That is an important point I would like to make, so please re-read that last sentence. This is why it matters little how “Christian” or not the framers of the Constitution were. People are often inconsistent with themselves, and we are to pattern our governing after the principles of freedom they envisioned, not after the personal biases of the men who penned them.
Early American life was highly religious; make no mistake about it. Many of the earliest settlers came here looking for a way to practice their religion without hindrance. Quite a few of them would have been happy to make their religion the official religion of the New World and its colonies. The Great Awakening only intensified that religious fervor, and many wanted to see their particular faith become the law of the land. But thankfully, enough of them came to see that religious freedom is a two-edged sword. The only way for you to be free to practice your religion is to ensure that anyone else can follow his own—or none at all—with equal freedom. This is the basic premise behind an intentionally secular government wherein a balance is struck between freedom of religion and freedom from religion.
A Balance Forgotten (or Perhaps Abandoned)
Today this nuance seems to be lost on an alarming percentage of people, particularly in the Deep South and the Midwest. They forget—or else were never taught—that it was the desire for freedom of religion which inspired the framers of our government to separate church and state in the first place. This separation doesn’t threaten religious liberty, it ensures it. But to hear many talk today, you would think the Establishment Clause was a frontal assault on Christianity (you generally don’t hear this complaint from other religious groups because they’re in the minority and are happy to not have Christianity force-fed them by government-sponsored entities). Living in Baptist country myself, I facepalm every time I hear one of their number protest the secularization of public life because I know good and well it was the Baptists themselves who virtually invented the idea. When you’re the ones being marginalized—or in their case physically run out of town for their religious beliefs—you become quite the champions of religious liberty for all. Once you’re in the majority, however, you tend to change your tune. The tables have turned for the Baptists (at least where I live) and they’ve grown accustomed to their places of privilege, much like the Protestants of mid-19th century Philadelphia.
For many though, simple civil disobedience doesn’t go far enough. In order to manifest the destiny of the church in their eyes something more strategic and fundamental must be done. The plan of action which many of them have adopted has been two-pronged: 1) Grow large families in which the children receive all their education either from home or from well-funded private Christian institutions, and 2) Tailor this process for the grooming of the future government leaders of the nation. In short, they want to take progressive control of both the education of their children and of the democratic governing process using whatever means necessary to wrest control from the godless secular masses. There are two major problems with this plan: First, not everyone can afford to do #1, and second, #2 fails to appreciate the depths of control which the wealthy have come to exercise over the political process itself. The Religious Right was once flattered by getting a place at the table in Washington, but in the process they became pawns for the rich to manipulate by convincing them that somehow God would want our government policies to favor the “job creators” instead of the people most cared for by the central figure of the New Testament: the poor.
My Facebook feed routinely blows up with cries to “bring God/prayer/the Bible back into our schools.” Thankfully, not all Christians fall for this shallow rhetoric. You’ve probably heard it said that as long as there are still tests, there will be prayer in school. And no law that I’m aware of prohibits a student or teacher from bringing a religious text of any kind to school. You can read your Bible in school as much as you like, provided you finish your schoolwork first! And it certainly makes no sense at all for anyone to say she believes in an all-powerful, everywhere-present deity who is also inexplicably unable to be present in a place simply because only a minority of the people want him there. I know what’s bothering my Christian friends, and I get it, really I do. When many of us were growing up, our particular faith was front and center, likely paraded out in front of everyone. This met with what seemed to be universal approval. And it feels really good to have your own religion celebrated in a public way. But not everyone shares your faith. In fact, that never was the case. Even when it seemed that the whole world thought the same way as you, it was always an illusion of religious unanimity at the expense of someone around you. They didn’t speak up because they weren’t allowed. Their views weren’t welcome. But this is not the American way—at least not the one that the founders of our country set in place. There have always been those who, perhaps like you, want the Christian way (which version?) to be the only way. Of course that’s appealing to you. But freedom of religion cuts both ways. If you want to remain free to publicly tout your faith, you will have to allow for those who do not share your faith to speak up as well.
Last year the governor of my state signed into law a mandate that all public schools in the state must provide a regular public forum in which students may express their religious beliefs for the entire school to hear (e.g. over the intercom, in an assembly, or at a ballgame). On the surface the may sound inclusive and legal (it’s “student-led,” right?), and it was met with rapturous applause in churches all over the state. But what happens when a Muslim student asks his principal if he can lead a Muslim prayer over the intercom? How well do you think that would go over? Or what if an atheist student decides he wants to openly express the reasons for his disbelief in God over the loudspeaker? Do you suppose any principal in his or her right mind would allow for that? That would be professional suicide. But that is the kind of situation my state has just created. Didn’t these lawmakers study history? What exactly did their teachers teach them? They cannot have thought through the ramifications of what they are doing. Seeing the stock of lawmakers grabbing headlines at the national level, I can’t say I’m surprised any longer. But I am still amazed.
This year my state passed another piece of legislation aimed at “restoring religious liberty” to the most devoutly religious state in the union. It was Mississippi’s version of the “Turn Away the Gays” bill which garnered so much press in Arizona but failed to pass. Here it passed both houses handily. Our bill was sponsored by a Baptist pastor and pushed through by a lobbyist who works for the Mississippi Baptist Convention’s lobbying arm. Because LGBT people aren’t a protected class here, this ensures that a bill like this, which doesn’t appear to allow discrimination on its surface, can in practice allow businesses to do exactly that. This bill also stipulated that the phrase “In God We Trust” be adopted as the state motto so that it could legally be brandished on our state seal. Sorry about any residents of Mississippi who aren’t theists, your views are not welcome here, in case you hadn’t already figured that out.
When are we ever going to learn? Government and religion make poor bedfellows. Nevertheless, the love affair continues.
* The next time someone tells you that the phrase “separation of church and state” appears nowhere in the Constitution, please inform them that the word “trinity” doesn’t appear in the Bible, either, and let them chew on that for a while.