As Frederick Clarkson noted on RD earlier this week, every January 16 we celebrate Religious Freedom Day. On this day 234 years ago, the Virginia Assembly passed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, setting in motion what, according to Clarkson, “may be the most revolutionary and liberatory idea in the history of civilization.”
America’s unique contribution to political science is the separation of state and church. We invented it and it’s the only guarantee for true religious liberty. The “wall of separation” that Thomas Jefferson famously wrote of—a metaphor that the Supreme Court first adopted nearly 150 years ago—is an American original. The idea was born in the Enlightenment, but it was first implemented in the American Experiment. This is not just an improvement on political science, but one of our country’s unique contributions to humanity.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Gary Wills put it nicely in his 1990 book, Under God: Religion and American Politics. The separation of state and church:
“more than anything else, made the United States a new thing on earth… . Everything else in our Constitution—separation of powers, balanced government, bicameralism, federalism—had been anticipated both in theory and practice. . . . But we invented nothing, except disestablishment. No other government in history had launched itself without the help of officially recognized gods and their state-connected ministers.”
Until America, no other government in the history of humanity had sought to protect citizens’ right to think freely by divorcing religion and government.
We should be proud of that contribution to the world, but Christian nationalists are doing their best to destroy it. Many groups are actively protecting the wall: the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the ACLU, American Atheists, the Center For Inquiry, the American Humanist Association, and others. The wall of separation is crumbling, though not from neglect. It’s being attacked.
The Trump administration is rife with Christian nationalists attempting to rewrite the Constitution by revising American history and declare this a “Christian nation.” Betsy Devos, Mike Pence, Ben Carson, Rick Perry, Jeff Sessions, Bill Barr, and Mike Pompeo have been abusing their government power to promote their personal religion. But under the U.S. Constitution, the government “has no particle of spiritual jurisdiction,” as Alexander Hamilton explained in The Federalist Papers.
At the head of this Christian Nationalist beast is Donald Trump. Today, he’s issuing a guidance to put prayer back in public schools. He’s appointed not only the Christian nationalists above, but also megachurch preacher Paula White to a White House position for which she has no qualifications. Trump held his first 2020 campaign rally at a church run by “Apostle” Guillermo Maldonado who, like Paula White, preaches the prosperity gospel, a theology so controversial even many conservative Christian leaders denounce it as false. (Incidentally, Maldonado’s church, El Rey Jesus, likely violated IRS regulations as the Freedom From Religion Foundation and members of Congress pointed out.)
At that rally, less than two weeks before Religious Freedom Day, Trump was clear about his desire to unite state and church. He declared, “We will restore the role of faith and true foundation of American life and we will ensure that our country forever and always remains one people, one family, and one glorious nation under God.” In the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Jefferson skewered:
“the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others.”
He might have been writing about Trump.
Without the secular government our founders established, religious freedom, the foundational American value that we celebrate every January 16, cannot exist. There is no freedom of religion without a government that is free from religion. The United States realized the dream of genuine religious freedom because it embarked “upon a great and noble experiment . . . hazarded in the absence of all previous precedent—that of total separation of Church and State,” as President John Tyler put it.