America has always been a deeply religious country. That’s just a plain fact. But saying that the U.S. is a religious country isn’t the same as saying that it’s a country with an official state religion. America has never been a theocracy, and trust me, we’re better off that way. This is why, despite the pipe-dreams of would-be modern theocrats on the Religious Right who want to impose their brand of fundamentalist Protestant Christianity onto every aspect of American life, the U.S. Constitution explicitly forbids the recognition of any state religion.
And while some religious-minded folks work themselves into an apocalyptic tantrum over this inconvenient truth, they should consider that church/state separation is beneficial to both entities. Think about it: let’s say you want to make Christianity the official religion of the United States. Well, which version of Christianity do you mean?
Surely you don’t mean those cracker-munching, incense-huffing, indulgence-selling Catholics and their sinister Papal overlord — right? Or what about America’s home-grown Appalachian snake-handlers? How’d you like to make a serpent-fondling suicide cult the centerpiece of your national spirituality? Or what about the Church of Latter Day Saints (aka the Mormons)? Sure, they say they’re Christians, but did you know they’re technically polytheists who wear weird, Minnesota ice fisherman-style long underwear? What about the Amish?! Okay, forget the Amish, they’re wise enough to generally avoid politics, but as for the rest of these groups: are these the “official” Christianities you want enshrined into state law?!
If you’re the typical, non-denominational, fundamentalist, white bread ‘Murican WASP, the idea of any of the above “Christianities” gaining state recognition should scare the (literal) Hell out of you. Wouldn’t it be better to have no state religion so that ALL faiths, regardless of their level of weirdness, can flourish in private — including yours? Of course it would better. That’s why it IS better that we have church/state separation.
This is why the recent Supreme Court decision in the case Town of Greece v. Galloway is really, really dumb. The case came before the Court after Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens — two persnickety, anti-God crusaders who are doomed to roast in the flames of Hell while listening to an endless loop of John Tesh playlists — claimed that the podunk city of Greece, New York violated the Constitution’s Establishment clause by opening its legislative session with a prayer. Galloway and Stephens had Americans United for Separation of Church and State on their side, but nonetheless received a legal smackdown in the form of a 5-4 decision — authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy — arguing that “Greece does not violate the First Amendment by opening its meetings with prayer that comports with our tradition and does not coerce participation by nonadherents.” This is legalese for, “Yeah, they’re praying to God, but no one’s forcing you to pray along.”
Despite Kennedy’s claim that opening a governmental session with prayers is fine ‘n dandy as long as the prayers invoke “traditional” themes and are “addressed only to a generic God,” this decision is a cheap way to slide Christianity into official state recognition because, to absolutely no one’s surprise, the prayer offered in Greece, NY was a Christian prayer. As Slate’s Dhalia Lithwick observes, “What Kennedy did here…was to announce that as a matter of constitutional law, some religious traditions that are universal and longstanding are basically Christian.” Because Kennedy deemed that “Christian values are basically universal,” Lithwick writes, he “drew a line between ‘traditional’ and accepted religions, and religions that are ‘other.'”
The biggest problem with the Supreme Court’s decision in Greece v. Galloway is that it essentially sanctions non-Christian religions as “others” in the public square while suggesting that “traditional” Christian beliefs should be given some form of state recognition. This is counter to the entire American legal precedent of promoting religious pluralism. In terms of numerical representation, America may indeed be considered a “Christian” nation, but it’s never been just that — and has never been defined as such by law. Multiple faiths have always thrived within U.S. borders, including versions of Christianity — such as Mormonism — that were once violently persecuted by “mainstream” Christians before finally gaining acceptance (for the most part) after the passage of time. Prohibiting a state religion ensures that minority and upstart groups like the Mormons can thrive rather than submit to persecution by the state.
This unique relationship between the sacred and the secular in American life helped forge a country in which religions could flourish and influence public policy while never explicitly directing public policy. In his excellent book Touchdown Jesus: The Mixing of Sacred and Secular in American History, historian R. Laurence Moore describes the U.S. as “a secular state indifferent in formal ways to all religious institutions but dependent for its survival on their health.”* Indeed, the health of religious pluralism reflects the health of American equality. “[I]n the United States the expansion of equality has always involved the erasure of difficulties attached to being different,” Moore writes. Because religion has always been a “constitutionally privileged form of difference,” he adds, “religious pluralism has played an important role in advancing the struggles of many Americans held back because of their race, or ethnicity, or sex, or national origins.”*
In other words, by not privileging one religion over another, the U.S. has historically allowed different belief systems to grow and influence the public sphere in ways they could never do if there were an official state religion. The separation of church and state, then, has historically been less about the exclusion of religion and more about its unofficial inclusion. As scholars Marjorie Garber and Rebecca Walkowitz explain in their book One Nation Under God?, “those who use the language of secularism would have to speak to a secularism of presence, not absence.” What they mean is that, while the U.S. is unquestionably a secular nation with secular laws, religions always have — and always will — play a role in the pubic sphere “negotiating for voice and influence in public discussion.”*
The important thing is that Christianity shouldn’t get special treatment in the public sphere via the state’s Christening (see what I did there?!) of it as the one-true religion. The decision in Greece v. Galloway tramps all over religious pluralism like a drunk, cleat-sporting golfer on a putting green. By claiming that Christian prayer, no matter how generic and “traditional” it may be, can be used to open government functions — even local meetings in upstate New York — the Supreme Court is getting uncomfortably close to saying, “Christianity’s fine, but everything else isn’t cool, bro.” American religious pluralism has long protected and expanded the rights of religious minorities, both of the Christian and non-Christian variety. This is a tradition worth holding onto — unless you’re fine with taking up poisonous serpents as a prerequisite for voting.
* See R. Laurence Moore, Touchdown Jesus: The Mixing of Sacred and Secular in American History (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 6, 5.
* See Marjorie Garber and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, eds., One Nation Under God? Religion and American Culture (New York: Routledge, 1999), 17.