The questions of maintaining a secular government in an overwhelmingly religious country aren’t going to be finally settled to anyone’s liking. The best that can be attained are temporary, shifting and variable lines separating the state from various groups which attempt to use it’s power to establish their domination. On our side of those lines are people and groups trying to prevent the others from using the state to run everyone else over. It has been the situation for the entire period during which the secular Constitution has been in effect. The results have been regional variations and local ones. The attempts of the mid-20th century to enforce non-establishment across the country had some success during a period of Democratic control of the federal government, during the period of Republican control it has been in retreat. Republicans have blatantly used the issue of religion and it has worked for them. It worked very well for them.
There is simply no way to enforce the non-establishment provisions of the Constitution on voters. Arguing whether or not that should be true is entirely futile. Voters, themselves, decide if their part in the most basic level of government will or will not be on the basis of a religious test. Voters are not bound in their decision by any of the provisions of the non-establishment clause and the no-test clause anymore than they are the several Civil Rights amendments. Those voters who want to will use their vote to put people into power who are willing to breach the wall of separation in direct violation of their oaths of office*. Those unscrupulous office holders will then have the power to appoint equally unscrupulous members of various courts, including the Supreme Court. The Republican Party has based a good part of its success on the cynical and highly selective use of “christians” of a kind unwedded to an egalitarian democracy and individual freedom. Would that Democrats of the past had been wiser in forming a coalition among various groups to thwart their success instead of insisting that the question had been settled.**
Today we are in the situation where the federal courts we unwisely depended on to protect our liberties, not only don’t do that, they are in the forefront of tearing down the Wall of Separation. It should be no surprise that a court which is increasingly destroying the most fundamental feature of democracy, the ability of people to cast a vote, would have no trouble destroying other aspects of an egalitarian, democratic government. We must give up the myth that the Constitution, which exists only within the interpretation the present day courts impose on it, is any substitute for direct, continuing political involvement. Direct political involvement always ends in trying to convince a winning margin of the voters to your point of view.
In the appeal to the voters it has to be remembered that we only need the margin of victory in any election, we don’t need to convince the entire population of the wisdom of our position. But you must also remember that the people we do need to convert to the cause will be religious believers, most of them self-defined as Christians. That has been a fact for the entire history of the United States, it is a fact that we operate under today. Antagonizing them will not get us anywhere anymore than depending on the present day Supreme Court will. Considering the history of the Supreme Court, the Warren Court, which you can still just catch in your rear view mirror, as it rapidly vanishes into the horizon, should be considered a fluke. We are living in a different world than that one.
I am an absolutist in the question of the Separation of Church and State but I am an absolutist-realist. In our politics, down here where we really live, to insist that it has ever been a settled matter is to ignore most of our history. If we want to defend The Wall of Separation our only secure tool is not the courts, it is The People, in all their diversity and at times their perversity. It has to always be remembered that The People, the final and most basic part of a democratic government, are the only secure guarantee of any part of our liberty and freedom. And you can’t force them to vote any particular way by Supreme Court order or through legal doctrine. You have to do it by appealing to their sense of justice and fairness and by pointing out the benefits of keeping the government out of religion. One way to do that is to point out it also protects them from unwelcome meddling in their religious beliefs, by competing religious groups.
Christianity, if that is the attempt to follow the teachings attributed to Jesus, never lost more than when it became an established religion, of Rome and then various other countries and nations. The earliest Jesus tradition, as described in Acts, was radically egalitarian for its time and it was overwhelmingly concerned with the welfare of the poor. That tradition never died out, though it was never dominant within the sphere within which Christianity existed. With establishment came a religious establishment and establishments tend towards their maintenance and enrichment. With establishment also came an ossification of the spirit into creedal statements as a means of enforcing uniformity. It isn’t any accident that some of the earliest ones were as a result of imperial command. Some of what was come up with would certainly have come as a complete surprise to the earliest members of the Jesus tradition, those who actually knew him.
The charade that goes by the name “christianity” in the American media has more to do with the imperial religion of a totalitarian monarchy than it does the teachings of the destitute Jewish peasant they claim is the son of God. I hold that today’s liberal Christianity is far better at following the teachings of Jesus than fundamentalists have any intention of attempting. I don’t think those teachings as understood within liberal Christianity are inconsistent with a real democracy or with the agenda of the left in general. One of the most basic tenets of religious liberalism is that people get to decide for themselves what they believe and do, so long as they don’t abridge the rights of others to do the same. As a non-Christian, I would have no concern for my freedom under a government dominated by liberals of any Christian churches and traditions. I believe they would most likely appoint judges who would protect personal freedom. Though with judges, the part of the federal government most remote from The People, it’s always something of a gamble.
Arguing these civic religious issues is a more effective means of fighting a corporate-state empire than insisting on what clearly has been a losing political, and so, ultimately, a losing legal position. Contending with “christian” fundamentalism on the basis of their complete non-observance of the justice teachings of the man they pretend is their Messiah, that’s messy, it’s hard. Many will turn up their noses at the prospect of the fight. And it’s fraught with problems. But so is democracy. Appealing to people on the margin of the groups wanting to destroy the Wall of Separation, those who might be convinced to join us, will be more successful than insisting on absolutist positions. You won’t be able to convince them in any language but the one they speak. If you aren’t willing to do that on the basis of some abstract principle, the fundamentalists don’t share that scruple.
Our politicians make some of the most careful observations of the political reality in which they either win elections or get out of politics. They have no choice but to work with the country as it really is.
* Is there a better example of the wisdom of Jesus teaching against the taking of oaths than Republican politicians promising to uphold the secular Constitution?
** The reliance on the courts instead of relying on convincing The People is at the heart of the problem. That reliance made the left lazy and over secure. You would think that watching the post Warren court systematically destroying our liberties for most of the last four decades would cure us from that complaisance. The first step in overcoming it is remembering how those courts are appointed and remembering that when the Supreme Court makes a decision against freedom and democracy, The People are the ultimate place to file an appeal and make our case. That is a fact Democrats ignored and Republicans remembered, to our loss.