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.
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" (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" (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