STATESIDE: Church, State and votes


MARGARET and her friend Cecile were worrying about the latest coming of the polar vortex and how it would affect their desire to go shopping in Manhattan later this week. Enjoying a latte together in a suburban New York coffee house as they contemplated changing their plans, Cecile frowned.

“What’s with the sad face, Ceci?” Margaret asked. “We can always put off our outing until the weather cooperates.”

“I know, Mags. It’s something else that’s been kind of troubling me for a little while, sort of nibbling at the edges of my thoughts. Seems like almost every day, I’ve been hearing for years about Republican politicians doing stuff that promotes churches and churchgoers. Former governors like Mike Pence in Indiana and Mike Huckabee in Arkansas have always emphasised their religiosity. Governor Ron DeSantis in Florida is actively promoting churches right now.

“I thought the separation of church and state was something locked into our American constitution. You used to be a history teacher. What’s going on?”

Margaret smiled. “Well, I can try to explain it to you. But you’ll have to listen to a short history lesson to really understand it. Do you have time and patience for that?”

Her friend nodded. “Sure. Go ahead. Just don’t get all pedantic on me. I’m not a teenager sitting in your classroom.”

“OK,” Margaret said. “I’ll try to give you the executive summary. But it does start way back in the 16th Century.” She looked up at her friend. “Don’t groan like that! I’ll get us to today in no time.” Both women settled back against the cushions in their adjoining love seats. Margaret began.

“I know you remember from your history lessons about the religious tyranny that helped lock Europe into the Dark Ages?”

“Yeah,” Cecile replied. “The Catholic Church was the state in a lot of places.”

“Right. The Protestant Reformation began with Martin Luther in 1517, nailing his 95 “theses” on the cathedral door. The Reformation arrived in England in 1534 when the king, Henry the Eighth, wanted to divorce his wife and the Pope wouldn’t approve. The result was the establishment of the Church of England, which was similar to Catholicism, except that its sovereign was the English monarch instead of the Pope. King Henry got his divorce. No big surprise there.

“In almost no time, the Church of England – a state religion at the time – spawned dissidence. So-called Separatists wanted to worship according to their own beliefs. This led them to flee from England, first to Holland and then to the ‘New World’ in America. You remember that, don’t you?”

“Sure. But what’s that got to do with Mike Pence?”

Margaret laughed out loud. “Patience, dear Ceci. Want another latte?”

“Looks like I’m going to need one, Mags.” Both ordered refills.

“So what all this history has to do with Mike Pence is that he sees himself as a very faithful, religious man. So too did those religious refugees from England. But the new North American settlers didn’t all follow the same beliefs either, and religious disputes roiled the early American colonies.

“By the time the American Revolution succeeded and the Founding Fathers got around to drafting a constitution, they still remembered the Pope and Henry the Eighth. Thomas Jefferson in particular believed that a clear separation between churches and the state would help ensure that the new American democracy would survive and prosper. He wrote about it. Hang on just a minute. I can show you.

“Here’s part of a letter Jefferson wrote to a Connecticut congregation in 1802: ‘Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.’”

Cecile sighed. “OK, I get that. Thanks. But what parts of our constitution reflect this?”

“The first amendment says ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ And Article Six specifies that no religious test should ever be introduced as a prerequisite for holding public office in the US.”

Cecile was frowning again. “OK. Separating church and state. Free exercise of religion. No state religion. How does that get us to these Republicans of today?”

“Aha,” her friend replied. “A bit more history. The influx of Roman Catholic immigrants to the United States from Ireland, Italy and elsewhere in Europe in the nineteenth century essentially created a challenge to what had become an unofficial Protestant establishment that was especially prominent in public schools and institutions. That challenge reinforced religious-based tensions and violence in American society.

“More recently, contemporary conflicts have emerged to divide those who oppose any government aid to religious institutions from those who think that such aid is appropriate if it extends to religious institutions in general and not to one particular sect. These groups obviously interpret Jefferson and the Constitution differently.”

Margaret paused. “Now I know you disapprove of Trump and his, um, lack of conventional civility. But I know you like many of his conservative policies, right?”

“Yes!” Cecile replied. “Let’s not go there now, OK?”

“Right. But the fact is that Trump added Pence to his ticket in 2016 and kept him there in 2020 mostly to appeal to religious nationalists, evangelicals and others who believe America should represent a religious ideal to the rest of the world. A result of the alliance between Trump, a classic narcissist whom no one paying attention would confuse with a devout or moral man, and the millions who profess to put faith in God above all else, was the appointment to American courts of conservative religious zealots. Many of these are conservative Catholics.

“The Supreme Court is a good example. There have only been 15 Catholic Supreme Court justices in US history. Six of them presently constitute a majority on the Supreme Court, of whom five are Republican appointees.”

“Hang on a moment,” Cecile said. “Are you saying Republicans are trying to restore a Catholic government in Washington?”

“No, of course not,” Margaret replied quickly. “In fact, I think Catholics are evenly divided politically. What the Republicans seem to be doing is supporting conservative Catholics, and conservative Evangelical Protestants. Their appeal is to conservative religious people. And it’s paying off. Let me read you something Linda Greenhouse wrote in the New York Times. You know of her, right? She might be the foremost contemporary commentor on our highest court. Listen:

“‘There have been many attempts over many years to persuade Congress to amend Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to shift the balance explicitly in favour of religiously observant employees. Between 1994 and 2019, more than a dozen such bills were introduced, but none emerged from Congress. Now, it seems that the Supreme Court is privileging religious claims above all others, whether in the context of COVID-related public health measures or claims brought by employees of religious organisations.

“A recent case accepted by the Court reinforces this point. The plaintiff who finally persuaded the justices to take his case is in fact, according to the joint statement of facts agreed to by the parties, “an evangelical Christian within the Protestant tradition.” When the court doubtless rules for him later this term, the decision will not stand as a vindication of minority rights. It will instead signify the court’s complete identification with the movement in the country’s politics to elevate religion over all other elements of civil society.

“Whether today’s Supreme Court is helping to lead that movement or has been captured by it is by now beside the point. Religion is the lens through which the current (Supreme Court) majority views American society.” Margaret sat back and sipped her latte.

Cecile replied. “I guess what you said explains a lot. It seems the Republicans understand that as the numbers of conservative religious white people dwindle in the US, they would want to organise politically to retain their influence. And they’ve become Trump’s conservative base.”


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