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The Christian Right’s Misconceptions on Church-State Separation

Gwenda Kaczor for The Chronicle Review

In the civics class I’ve been taking this year, we were forced to go through one of those generic units that discusses and Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the founding of the United States. As part of that unit, we had a discussion a little over a week ago about church-state separation as it appears in the Constitution and in law.

Now, my class has had a substitute teacher in for our regular teacher for a few weeks due to personal reasons, and like most lazy substitute teachers, she decided to intro our discussion with a YouTube video about church-state separation. Unfortunately, she didn’t review the video she showed the class beforehand, and as a result, she ended up showing the following video.

Before you continue reading this, I highly recommend you watch the video just to see the level we’re on here.

This video was effectively Christian propaganda. It was disgusting manipulation of facts, selectively choosing information and relying on traditional logical fallacies and myths used by Christians in debates to make the argument that church-state separation shouldn’t exist.

As an atheist, I’ve had quite a few debates with Christians, so I’ve encountered a lot of the misconceptions and flawed arguments they’ve used before, but this video reached a new frontier for me. Church-state separation is so ingrained in modern American thinking and so explicitly stated and defended in law that I couldn’t even imagine that someone would try to challenge it, but that’s exactly was this video did.

This short three minute video was enough to cause me to go digging deeper online once I got home, looking at what people are saying about church-state separation, and from what I found, this video perfectly encapsulates the debate. This video combines nearly all of the points made by the Christian right for why church-state separation doesn’t exist or shouldn’t exist, and most arguments in favor of church-state separation at least address these Christian arguments in some way.

So, I want to set the record straight permanently. If this decently produced video is making these points, and the same points are being echoed by angry commenters on internet forums, then it’s pretty safe to say that this is the general line of thinking among conservative Christians when it comes to church-state separation, and since nearly all of these points are wrong or incredibly misleading, I’m going to look at them one by one and address them.

The words “Separation of Church and State” aren’t in the Constitution

So, this is technically correct, but also incredibly misleading. The video uses this fact to imply that, since the specific phrase isn’t in the Constitution, then the concept of separation of church and state isn’t there either. That is false.

For anyone who believes this, I would like to direct you to the first amendment, which reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The first amendment makes it very clear that the government is not permitted to favor a religion or prohibit the people from worshiping freely. Allowing a religion’s beliefs directly influence government policy, which is what the absence of church-state separation would bring, would definitely be the government favoring that religion.

Church-State Separation was embedded in law by Justice Hugo Black, a racist, Catholic hating, KKK member, and it’s being used to harm people of faith

Okay, so, this part of the video is sort of valid.

The video states that, in the 1947 case of Everson v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court made a decision to apply the Establishment Clause to states. What this means is that, before the case, states were allowed to ignore the first amendment in the Constitution and passed laws favoring or disenfranchising certain religions, but after the decision was handed down, states couldn’t do that anymore.

The video also says that, before he was on the Supreme Court, Justice Black was a member of the KKK, who were vocal racists and anti-Catholics who included church-state separation as part of their creed.

All of this is true, and the video uses this to imply that Justice Black made his decision based on his own racist and hateful views, and because the video conveniently ignores the first amendment, this is apparently the first time that church-state separation was introduced into law, and it’s been used ever since to persecute people of faith. This last part is a little less logical.

For starters, it’s not like Black was alone in making this decision. Four other Supreme Court Justices who weren’t part of the KKK joined with Black to make the 5–4 verdict, and it’s pretty safe to say that those justices were basing their decision on the facts, not their own racist views.

Secondly, as we’ve already addressed, this isn’t the first time church-state separation was introduced into law. It was explicitly stated in the first amendment already, and this decision was simply applying it to state governments along with the federal government.

Finally, and this is probably the worst part of the argument, the video makes the worn out claim that church-state separation is being used to persecute and silence people of faith in the US. This is blatantly false.

At its core, separation of church and state is about keeping the church from deciding policies within the government, and keeping the government from meddling with the operations of the church. The video tries to say that it’s being used to silence religious people, but it’s not. It’s just trying to keep the church from controlling the government.

There’s this meme on Reddit that’s been shared around quite a bit that reads “We tried a Christian society run by the rich, it was called the Dark Ages for a reason”, and while it’s meant to be a joke, it does make a solid point about religion in government. Throughout history, we’ve tried to have governments controlled by the church, and they usually don’t end up that great.

Even just looking at modern times with Iran and Saudi Arabia, you can see that having the church controlling government policy and actions doesn’t always have the best outcome.

When the founding fathers were making America, they wanted to do everything they could to keep the religious elite from controlling the government, which is why the Establishment Clause exists. It isn’t some attempt to silence religious people, it’s a promise that we will ensure that the church and state are separate, and that we can have a government that lets the church be independent and serves the interests of the people, not just the interests of the church.

In modern times, religious people aren’t being silenced or marginalized by church-state separation. If anything, they’re thriving.

According to stats from 2016, 73.7% of the US population is Christian, with another 2.1% being Jewish and 0.8% being Muslim. This means that religious people, mostly Christians, make up an overwhelming majority of the population.

Of course, being the majority doesn’t guarantee fairness under the law. Just look at Iraq in the late 1900’s and early 2000’s, where the dictator Saddam Hussein and a Sunni minority worked to suppress the Shiite majority.

The real question then is if the government is suppressing religious people, especially Christians, and the answer to that is hell no.

According to the Pew Research Center, 88.2% of representatives in the 116th Congress described themselves as Christian, meaning that they hold a massive majority. On top of that, multiple ballot measures were passed in 2018 that were clearly favoring people of faith, such as Alabama allowing the ten commandments to be displayed in public and West Virginia restricting public abortion funding.

That’s not to mention that pro-Christian bills get proposed in state and federal government all the time, like a Florida Democrat introducing a bill to mandate Bible classes in public school, and it’s very clear that Christian activists and lobbies, like the one that made this video, still have a massive indirect influence on policies made in Washington and elsewhere.

Conclusion

So, what should we take away from this?

The first thing is that Christians seem to have no idea what the hell they’re talking about when it comes to opposing church-state separation. Of the arguments made in this video, they were almost entirely based in manipulated facts and logical fallacies.

They made the blatantly false statement that the Constitution doesn’t include church-state separation, and used this to redefine what it is, they tried to imply that the only reason church-state separation exists is because of the decision of a racist, anti-Catholic Supreme Court Justice and they topped it all off by playing Christianity’s oh-so-reliable persecution card.

None of these arguments are sound and none of them disprove the idea that we need to separate the affairs of the church from the affairs of the state, but unfortunately, they’ve been perpetuated by for so long by Christian activists that many people are starting to believe them and base their opinions off of them.

In reality, Christians should support church-state separation just as much as atheists, since it keeps them free from government control. While this video does make that argument, it also tries to claim that religion should be allowed to influence government due to nonexistent gaps in the law, and that is where it all breaks down.

It’s not a matter of background or political opinion, or at least, it shouldn’t, because if you take a few minutes to sit down and read about the history of theocracy, you’ll see why we need a secular government more than ever.


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