Separation of Church and (the) State (department)

Religion has always included an element of pain or at least discomfort for me. Knees bruised from lengthy Masses, nostrils itching from incense. I mean, my parish was Most Precious Blood. My parochial grammar school uniform had an emblem of a mother pelican feeding her young. Why a pelican, you ask? Well, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the pelican is “supposed to wound itself in order to feed its young with its blood and to bring to life those who were dead.” That’s a lot for a little girl to carry around on her chest.

In my teens, I cringed listening to various priests rail from the pulpit against a laundry list of supposed evils. And in my twenties, I finally turned away after being told that designer jeans (maybe the Calvin Kleins I was wearing) were causing sin and ruin and not just my own. There were some things I liked. The Shroud of Turin. Stories like the loaves and fishes and Lazarus rising from the dead. Mostly I struggled with an utter lack of faith and anger that in the Church women were always less than.

It’s not in the Constitution, but…

I am now an atheist, and no longer anxious or afraid to say so. What causes fear and anxiety for me lately are the actions of the President, the Attorney General, the Secretary of State, and of the State Department. I was taught as most of us were that there is a deliberate separation between church and state. Even if it’s not written into the Constitution, there is plenty of historical evidence through treaties and court decisions that the government of the United States was specifically intended to be without a religious bias of any kind.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in an 1802 letter to a group of Connecticut Baptists–who firmly adhered to the separation of church and state–“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”


So what am I to make of the speeches by AG William Barr, speaking at Notre Dame Law School, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking to the American Association of Christian Counselors’ World Conference? Barr essentially says you need Judeo-Christian values to be disciplined enough to be a democracy; and Pompeo talked of his need for divine direction to do his job. And the State Department followed this up by changing its home page to promote Pompeo’s speech under the headline “Being a Christian Leader.”

The mission of the State Department in its own words is to “advance the interests of the American people, their safety and economic prosperity, by leading America’s foreign policy through diplomacy, advocacy, and assistance.” What does that mean for the nearly 23% of us who do not identify with any religion? Math is not my strong suit, but I think that means that there are at least 76 million of us whose interests are being disregarded or worse by Trump and his administration.


Trump used his recent press conference with Italian President Sergio Mattarella to note that the “culture and values that bind the U.S. and Italy date back thousands of years to ancient Rome.” While many are snickering because each country is less than 250 years old, I heard the reference as specific to a shared religious history. And again, I wonder where the line is. Or should be. Or will be.

The creep of Christianity into our policies and politics I suspect may also pose a problem for Jews, and Muslims, Mormons, Buddhists and Unitarians. The brilliant documentary “Hail Satan” about the Satanic Temple in Salem, Massachusetts, showcases the Temple as a living commentary on exactly this. The Temple exists almost solely to remind us–government and citizens alike–that we are a secular nation and, as the Guardian points out in its review of the film, “a blatant Christian bias is antithetical” to that.

The Temple also has some pretty cool rules to live by, which include many of the same commandments of other organized religions–and some that are not. Unlike most organized religions, the Satanic Temple explicitly recognizes science, and autonomy over one’s own body. And that’s where the fear comes in for me, the belief by our leaders that God will guide us or that God has chosen the way or that God has determined–as Christians in power believe and may choose to act on the fact–that I as a woman am less than.

So what about me?

I am not militant in my atheism. I do not object to anyone else’s religious choices. I don’t care if people insist on saying Merry Christmas (although I will say Happy Holidays if I do not know what you celebrate).

And If freedom of religion is protected by the Constitution–and it is–shouldn’t freedom from religion also be guaranteed?


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