I grow weary that we are still having this argument as a nation, so let me help people out: The Separation of Church and State is a REAL thing. I say this to you without hesitation of any kind--as a woman who was raised in church and who, as an adult, hasn’t yet abandoned it entirely. I respect religion. I respect faith. I understand why it matters. I strongly advocate for everyone’s personal, individual right to practice the faith of their choosing so long as they break no laws or harm other people (that leaves you out, extremists). However, I’m also a staunch believer in the Separation of Church and State and yet--
Being a person of faith and being an advocate for a religion-free government are NOT mutually exclusive.
First, I would direct you to the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. The language in that document is fairly clear on religion and government, but some disagree. Fine, let’s look further.
When people try and say that the language in the Constitution which says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" never meant that the United States wasn't a Christian nation, then the logical follow up is what happened in the year 1797 with the Treaty of Tripoli.
There is a very important section in the Treaty of Tripoli which happened under the Presidency of John Adams and was ratified unanimously by the 32 members of Congress who were present for the vote. In a nutshell, the Treaty of Tripoli (Libya now) was an agreement between the new United States and the pirates of that region to protect American ships from Barbary pirates. It’s so strange that a small and short-lived treaty would become a lynchpin in this argument about religion, but it did. The Treaty of Tripoli was tricky to broker because the pirates were of Muslim faith and the issue of Christian American had the potential to be problematic. Added to that, the United States was still a relatively young country and so had not yet had much time to build up a reputation for honorable diplomacy and global military might. As it would happen, the Treaty would very quickly be dissolved by the Tripoli government because of accusations of non-payment and two American ships would be captured. It is important to note, however, that the article in the Treaty regarding religion is clear and in no way hinges on the survival of this particular Treaty, and whether the Treaty itself survived or not, this language appeared in a document unanimously ratified by 32 members of the US Congress.
"Art. 11. As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen (Muslims); and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan (Mohammedan) nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."
Seems pretty clear cut and why many citizens--myself included--say that the United States definitely set a precedent for a separation of Church and State through this legislation as well as the language in the First Amendment. Please note, it does not say anything like “In this particular case with these Muslim pirates, we agree to not be so flashy about our Christian God.” It says very plainly that the U.S. Government was not in any sense founded on the Christian religion. It literally says exactly that.
The majority of the people who are arguing that the Treaty of Tripoli does NOT mean the United States is a Christian nation are saying that because the Arabic translation of the Treaty does not include that section. First, it was the English translation which was voted upon by the US Congress (and remember, they ratified it unanimously). Not only that, of the 32 men who voted, I would be surprised if any of them had read the Treaty in Arabic and if so, certainly not more than one or two. Also, can we please appreciate the irony of Extreme Right, Conservative Christians using an Arabic document written by Muslims as "proof" of why the United States really is a Christian nation and 'there has never been anything official saying we aren't a Christian nation and the Founding Fathers never mentioned keeping church and government separate.' For full disclosure, I will say that about a decade later, a new Treaty was negotiated with the Barbary Pirates which did not include any language specific to religion anywhere.
That still does not change the unanimous ratification of the Treaty containing that article in 1792. Nor does it in any way change the First Amendment of the US Constitution which –once again and louder for the people in the back—says Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.
Let’s take this one step further for those who like to trot out the idea that the Founding Fathers were Christians and they are the ones who set us up as a Christian nation. John Adams, the President who signed the Treaty of Tripoli, was a Founding Father. All of the 32 who ratified the treaty were either Federalist or Republican party members. There are any number of books and articles written about the religious practices of all of the Founding Fathers. It’s a fairly even split in terms of those who argue they were all Christians and those who argue either that they weren’t all Christians (or that even if they were, their words and actions indicated their desire for a government free of religion). Many of them also do a great job contextualizing how Christian religious practice has changed from 1750 to 2017. If this is a topic which interests you, definitely try to read at least one book from each perspective. The book I have personally found to be pretty level-headed and more historically based than agenda based is The Faiths of the Founding Fathers by David Holmes. Holmes is a Church historian, professor of Religion, and a veteran of the US Army.
I will close this post with the bit of information I have been saving for just this moment: I live in Oklahoma where we have our own history with people wanting to put a giant monument of The 10 Commandments on taxpayers’ public property. It is an issue with which I am painfully familiar so when I saw the news about the man who drove his car through the monument erected in Arkansas, I felt a sense of familiarity. I knew the arguments that would be forthcoming. I knew what I was likely to see on social media. I knew what many pastors and religious friends and family members would be posting. In fact, I was even familiar with the man who hit and destroyed the Arkansas monument because he’s the same guy who hit the Oklahoma monument a few years ago. I won’t drag this out with all of the ins and outs of the Saga of The 10 Commandments in Oklahoma, but the Cliff’s notes version involves multiple lawsuits, a Satanic Statue, and a lot of wasted taxpayer money and wasted legislative time. Arkansas, apparently feeling themselves to be smarter than us Okies, passed a State Law in 2015 literally called The Ten Commandments Monument Act. The monument was built with $26K in private funds but was then placed on government property. It was destroyed in its first day. Arkansas State Senator Jason Rapert immediately went online with a Go Fund Me to rebuild. The goal to replace the $26K statue? $100K. Interesting, no? At the time of this writing, the Go Fund Me for a new Arkansas monument was already over $50K. I will spare the “I wonder how many elderly shut-ins that money could feed” diatribes or the “maybe if they practiced what was written in the 10 Commandments instead of throwing money at a graven image of it…” commentary and skip straight to: Take it from an Okie. Y’all are going to have a lot of fun with this in the Courts. I can’t wait to see what the Church of Satan designs to put up next to your Ten Commandments (ours was a Baphomet flanked by children and there was discussion of a seated Satan so that he had a lap kids could sit on).
So yes, people. For the love of both God AND the Constitution, the Separation of Church and State is REAL. The fact that it continues to be battled in 2017 is just insane. We have much bigger problems to solve.
But on a human level? On the level of one person who was raised in a Christian faith to another? Here is the question with which I want to leave you:
In states with severe budget shortfalls where education, healthcare, human services, and public safety budgets are repeatedly slashed and the quality of life of your citizens is suffering, would it not be a better picture of Christianity and Jesus to love thy neighbor and feed some hungry people with the time and money being spent on what essentially amounts to a pigeon toilet?
And in Oklahoma, the saga is never ending: