Why don’t Christians understand the separation of church and state?

The reactions of the Cranston, Rhode Island Christian majority to the result of Jessica Ahlquist’s lawsuit has gotten me thinking. Just why is it that Christians don’t understand the concept of separation of church and state? They certainly disagree with the concept, but I think that, just as importantly, they have some misconceptions about it.

First, some background for those that aren’t familiar with the Ahlquist case. At Cranston West High School in 1963, a banner was created titled “School Prayer” containing the following text:

Our Heavenly Father.

Grant us each day the desire to do our best.
To grow mentally and morally as well as physically.
To be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers.
To be honest with ourselves as well as with others.
Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win.
Teach us the value of true friendship.
Help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West.

Amen.

Jessica Ahlquist

Jessica Ahlquist (2)

This banner still hung in the gym when Ahlquist, an atheist, began attending. During her sophomore year, the ACLU sent a letter on behalf of an anonymous parent (presumably not Ahlquist’s parents) to the school requesting the banner be removed since it is obviously illegal. When Ahlquist learned of the letter, she began attending school board meetings to try and persuade the board to remove the banner. After multiple failed attempts, she filed a lawsuit with the help of the ACLU against the school and won (obviously). (1) Before, during, and after the trial, Ahlquist has faced a great deal of push-back from the Christian majority in Cranston, including threats of violence. She has had to have a police escort at school, and her state senator even called her an “evil little thing.” (2)

Many arguments have been put up in defense of the banner, and many arguments have been made about how the lawsuit is part of our evil plot to get the government to support the religion of atheism. Obviously these arguments incredibly inane and not even remotely based in reality, but nonetheless they are being made. As an example, see this comment from the comments section in the Providence newspaper (3):

As an analogy to hanging a banner with a verse on the wall of a public building that our citizens are exposed to, I fear that at some point in the future, the legal process on this issue will evolve to the point that houses of worship will not be allowed to front public streets. After all, citizens pass them bye while traveling said public streets and the separation purists certainly will not allow that will they?

Why do so many Christians always seem to think that our efforts in enforcing the separation of church and state are really efforts to outlaw faith? I have been pondering this question lately, and I have a few hypotheses.

"Help! We're Being Oppressed"

"Help! We're Being Oppressed" (4)

A common hypothesis that comes up is that these Christians have enjoyed majority status for a very long time, such that they don’t know what it’s like to be a minority. They don’t know what it’s like to experience real religious prejudice, so to them anything that hampers their ability to what they want is viewed as a grave injustice and a violation of their rights. I do think this is true, but I don’t think it’s the only reason, and maybe not even the primary reason.

Another hypothesis I have is that these Christians have a lack of basic understanding of the law and our governmental structure. There are two common misconceptions that I see rather often. The first is that the government is only forbidden from establishing a government church. I think the reason for this comes from a reading of the First Amendment in a vacuum.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof (5)

As worded, the amendment does seem to imply that it only forbids the US Congress from writing legislature that favors one religion over another, but anything else is allowed (side note: how do people take this wording to mean that congress is only forbidden from establishing a state church? It’s quite the leap). What these types of people fail to take into account is that the constitution does not exist in a vacuum since we are a common law nation, but instead must be considered with the history of the Supreme Court and other legislation, namely Everson v. Board of Education and the 14th Amendment (the constitution applies to federal and local government). The second misconception that I see often is that legislation passed by “majority rule” has the highest level of precedence. The most obvious example of this is the backlash against the recent Proposition 8 ruling. Rick Santorum even stated (6):

We need judges who respect the people’s voice. Let the people decide with respect to what the Constitution says.

That is simply not how our government works. The US Constitution is the supreme law of the land. Nothing can override it except another constitutional amendment. At all. Period. End of discussion. Yet Christians don’t seem to understand this and so we get so many instances of “those damn judges are ignoring the will of the people.” Judges aren’t ignoring the will of the people, they just simply recognize that the Constitution trumps the will of the people.

Let's just go with "First Amendment"

Let's just go with "First Amendment" (7)

My third hypothesis is that these types of people tend to not really care about the law. They tend to go on and on about “I live and die by the Constitution” and “Government should get out of our lives so we can be free,” but they don’t really believe those things. Instead, they see the government beginning to crack down on laws supporting their beliefs, whether it’s no prayer in school, outlawing abortion, or banning gay marriage. They see these actions as the government intervening in their lives, and as a result they are experiencing a loss in freedom. Technically they are correct, too. They are loosing their freedom to illegally use the government to advance their personal beliefs in spite of the constitution. What they fail to realize is that, in these instances, the government is actually making our society more free, not less. Then again, maybe they do realize that this is the case…

It’s important to note that I used the term “hypothesis” here, not “theory.” I did this intentionally because I do not have strong data to support these hypotheses, just personal observation and a lot of reading, but they seem reasonable. What can be done about this? We just keep doing what we do…calling out their stupidity and doing our best to educate the public. We are already seeing a decline in religious attendance, and much of it is due to increased education. Education is the key to everything, and societies always become more educated over time, not less. Time is on our side, we just have to endure in the mean time.

(1) “Jessica Ahlquist.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jessica_Ahlquist
(2) Goodnough, Abby. “Student Faces Town’s Wrath in Protest Against a Prayer.” The New York Times. 26th January, 2012. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/27/us/rhode-island-city-enraged-over-school-prayer-lawsuit.html
(3) Dujardin, Richard C. “Federal judge orders ‘immediate’ removal of Cranston school prayer mural; appeal unlikely .” The Providence Journal. 11th January, 2011. Available: http://news.providencejournal.com/breaking-news/2012/01/federal-judge-o-1.html#.TzXtjl0Xuca
(4) “Help! We’re Being Oppressed!” Reddit. Available: http://www.reddit.com/r/atheism/comments/dy84p/help_were_being_oppressed/
(5) “First Amendment to the United States Constitution.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Amendment_to_the_United_States_Constitution
(6) Savage, David G. “Santorum decries ‘judicial tyranny’ in Prop. 8 ruling.” Los Angeles Times. 12th Februaru, 2012. Available: http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/la-santorum-decries-judicial-tyranny-in-prop-8-case-20120212,0,2601434.story
(7) Tristam, Pierre. “Deconstructing the Bill of Rights.” Candide’s Notebooks. 23rd February, 2007. Available: http://pierretristam.com/Bobst/07/cn022307.htm

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4 thoughts on “Why don’t Christians understand the separation of church and state?

  1. Working class Catholics are nonverbal-dominant people. They specialize in nonverbal work (mechanic, cleaning, painting). They do poorly in verbal-dominated schools. Their church puts little emphasis on the bible and uses a lot of art to convey meaning. Words, in their culture, are not expected always to have exact true/false meaning. Their culture doesn’t emphasize developing the skills needed for that. So, often, words are poetic rather than literal.

    Have you ever seen the drawing that can be interpreted as either an old woman or a young woman?

    If, in Catholic culture, the words on the banner are intended and perceived as a poem – art – rather than a statement of theism, and verbal (=educated) people are misinterpreting it, does that change your analysis?

    Did you approve of militant Muslims blowing up Buddhist statues because they represented “idolatry”?

    Bearing in mind that ripping out words from a work of art is going to seem like taking scissors to The Last Supper – if the problem is that your verbal nature makes the literal meaning particularly strong for you, and you are suspicious of their intentions, how could they reassure you so they can keep the banner?

    • Working class Catholics are nonverbal-dominant people. They specialize in nonverbal work (mechanic, cleaning, painting). They do poorly in verbal-dominated schools. Their church puts little emphasis on the bible and uses a lot of art to convey meaning. Words, in their culture, are not expected always to have exact true/false meaning. Their culture doesn’t emphasize developing the skills needed for that. So, often, words are poetic rather than literal.

      I don’t entirely agree with this because you are lumping a large group together. I’m sure that some working class Catholics are as you say, but to say that all working class Catholics are this way is surely an over-generalization, and could even be viewed as offensive by Catholics.

      If, in Catholic culture, the words on the banner are intended and perceived as a poem – art – rather than a statement of theism, and verbal (=educated) people are misinterpreting it, does that change your analysis?

      Yes and no. Assuming your analysis of Catholic culture is correct, then my last hypothesis most certainly doesn’t apply, although I think that my hypothesis about a misunderstanding of the law is still valid. That said, it doesn’t change whether or not the banner is valid primarily for two reasons. First is that intentions do not play a factor in deciding whether or not something is a constitutional violation. For instance, we know that the government censoring the KKK is a blatant violation of their civil rights, even though doing so could result in reduced inter-racial violence and thus the intentions were good/harmless. Second is that even if the banner is intended and perceived as art, it is still unconstitutional. A school is not allowed to declare that Handel’s “The Messiah” is their school song because of it’s Christian background, even though it is a work of art (a very good one I might add). In short, intentions and how the banner are perceived by it’s supporters are irrelevant.

      Bearing in mind that ripping out words from a work of art is going to seem like taking scissors to The Last Supper – if the problem is that your verbal nature makes the literal meaning particularly strong for you, and you are suspicious of their intentions, how could they reassure you so they can keep the banner?

      They can’t. There is nothing that can be done to keep the banner up, aside from editing out the religious portions.

      • Thanks. That was useful. A couple of things.

        1. I would have thought it was obvious that I was describing the majority of people and the general nature of the community, the way you do when you discuss “Christians.”

        2. I’m not sure anyone would take offense, but let me say anyway that these people are NOT stupid. A lot of them are craftsman and geniuses at what they do. Our society rewards left-brained types who can handle contracts, complex finance, and planning and it’s not set up to value them, so they make little. Progressive taxes, financial aid grants rather then loans, and government pension schemes rather then 401(k)s make a big difference in their quality of life. They are communitarian, and our very “free-market”” system penalizes them for having the wrong type of skills. It’s not that they’re not self-reliant, it’s that they prefer to be self-reliant as a group, rather than as individuals. (In my opinion, of course.)

        Quebec is an example of a place that caters to their sort of values, even though it’s highly secular.

        3. You say intentions don’t play a factor, but purpose is the first prong of the Lemon test, so they do. Also, your Messiah example isn’t a real case (I don’t think), so it’s not persuasive. Still, I understand that your opinion isn’t going to change in any event.

        (Have you read the decision? If not, take a look. It’s very instructive. I read it to say that the community’s (inexcusable) conduct went a long way to making Jessica’s case for her.)

        4. You didn’t answer the question about the statues. I don’t know whether that was conscious or unconscious. It’s hard because it seems like a good analogy but it compares atheists as militant Muslims, which is unpleasant.

        I get the sense that your values must run “Establishment Clause” > “Historical Religious Art” > “Religion”, which is certainly defensible, but taking a hard line can ruffle a lot of feathers.

        Thanks for the article, and the reply.

      • 1-2) It seems I just misinterpreted you. I got the impression that you were saying that these working class Catholics are not capable of higher-level thought processes (which I obviously disagree with), which after your response seems clear that that was not your intention.

        3) Purpose and intention are not quite the same thing, but you do make a good point. Let me step back and rephrase my initial reply, which after reading is is poorly worded and thought-out. FYI My Messiah example was a hypothetical, meant to illustrate my point. It’s not a real case as far as I am aware.

        So let’s start with the Lemon Test, which you mentioned included intent. From Lagueux’s decision: “According to the Lemon v. Kurtzman analysis, a governmental practice, or legislative act, must satisfy three tests in order to survive an Establishment Clause challenge. It must: “(1) reflect a clearly secular purpose; (2) have a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion; and (3) it must avoid excessive government entanglement with religion.” Basically if it fails any one of those three, then it is unconstitutional. The third is a non-issue, but I would claim that the banner violated (1) and (2), (2) because it advances Christianity while inhibiting others (even if that wasn’t the intention).

        For (1), the Lemon test states that the (in this case) governmental practice must “reflect a clearly secular purpose.” This is where the difference between intent and purpose can be important (although isn’t in this case). Intent is what was intended when the practice/legislation was first put into effect, but purpose can change overtime. There is another important aspect of (1), that it must clearly have a secular purpose. This says that if it’s purpose is clearly religious, then it is unconstitutional (obviously, no debate there I’m sure), but it also implies that if the purpose is ambiguous then it is also unconstitutional. While there are good arguments to be made on whether or not the banner was intentionally religious, the mere fact that we are having the debate means it was ambiguous at best. I come from a strong background in education (I have a Ph.D. and did a lot of teaching as a grad student), and I learned that something is only made clear if there is no debate. It doesn’t matter how much I, as an instructor/TA, thought the explanation was clear. The only one who could accurately determine if my explanation was clear were those on the other side (i.e. students). At the time it was a painful lesson, one with many missteps along the way. I think the same thing applies here, and also applies to other civil rights issues.

        Now this also begs the question of “what do we mean by purpose.” I think this is where you and I disagree. To say something has a religious purpose does not mean that it is trying to convert/prozyletize/etc. It can be anything, including artistic expression. If the purpose is artistic expression of one’s religious values (e.g. non-verbal), then that still fails because it is not a secular purpose. To quote from Legaux’s decision (which I have read; I learned a long time ago to always go straight to the source, hence why I always reference things on my blog): “No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything
        other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that.” It may not be meant to be taken literally, but it is still of a religious nature.

        4) Sorry, I forgot to reply. I’m not familiar with the incident you described, but I will say this: I do not condone the use of violence to achieve one’s end, no matter what that end is, and I do not condone vigilantism. So unless I am missing something really major then I very strongly disapprove.

        I get the sense that your values must run “Establishment Clause” > “Historical Religious Art” > “Religion”, which is certainly defensible, but taking a hard line can ruffle a lot of feathers.

        It’s actually much more generic than that: “constitution” > “personal conviction”. The law isn’t optional…just try not paying your taxes because of personal conviction and see how far that gets you with the IRS :). As far as ruffling a lot of feathers, I have no problem with that. In fact I would say that it is necessary in these circumstances in order to make people more aware of what the Constitution/Judicial precedent really says on the matter.

        BTW, this is a fun dialog. Thanks for reading the article and taking the time to reply in an open/non-combative manner.

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