There is of course Mr T’s proposal to build a specific physical wall, and while that should be both a huge concern and also appropriately criticised, there is another existing wall that Mr T is in the process of demolishing that should also greatly concern us – It is Thomas Jefferson’s wall of separation between church and state.
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Mr T’s behaviour is at times more than a little bit weird, and so each and every day brings us illustrations of this. For example, when he attended a National Prayer meeting, he spent his time there plugging his reality TV show, The Apprentice. He also asking those there to say a prayer for Arnold Schwarzenegger, the guy who has taken it over. This was all a verbal pot shot directed at Mr Schwarzenegger to suggest that he was doing an abysmal job on the show. To his credit, Mr Schwarzenegger tweeted back at Mr T …
“Hey Donald, I have a great idea. Why don’t we switch jobs? You take over TV, because you’re such an expert in ratings, and I take over your job, and then people can finally sleep comfortably again.”
It is perhaps his core eccentricity that has driven him to stir up a frenzy by enacting some quite frankly weird and truly dangerous decisions.
Two specific items of immediate concern are these …
Within The Nation we have – Leaked Draft of Trump’s Religious Freedom Order Reveals Sweeping Plans to Legalize Discrimination …
If signed, the order would create wholesale exemptions for people and organizations who claim religious objections to same-sex marriage, premarital sex, abortion, and trans identity.
The New York Times reports – Trump Vows to ‘Destroy’ Law Banning Political Activity by Churches …
Mr. Trump said his administration would “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits churches from engaging in political activity at the risk of losing their tax-exempt status.
Repealing the law would require approval by Congress. Certain tax-exempt organizations — in this case, churches — are not allowed to openly endorse or campaign for political candidates. If they do, under existing law, they risk losing the benefits of their tax-exempt status.
A bit of context
Within the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United State there exists the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause. It reads as follows …
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
A turn of phrase that is often utilised to encapsulate this principle is “Jeffersons wall”. That is a reference to a letter that Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists in 1802 (Side note: There were a religious minority concerned about the dominant position of the Congregationalist church in Connecticut). Within that letter he explained things to them as follows …
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and 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 and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
You can find the full text of that letter online here.
The Legal Position
Many can and do quibble about what this all means, what Jefferson really thought or believed, or how the first amendment should be interpreted. For example the phrase “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” is viewed by some as explicit permission to promote a specific religious belief in state run schools or to happily discriminate without the state telling you that this is wrong. Such interpretations are utterly irrelevant. The only valid interpretation is the legal one.
The Everson v. Board of Education (1947), decision was decisive and clear. In this landmark case, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Establishment Clause was not simply something that applied to the federal government, it also applied to each state legislature as well. Prior to this decision the legal position was that it imposed limits only on the federal government. Prior to this, some state legislatures had granted certain religious denominations legislative or effective privileges.
You can read about the specifics of that case here.
Justice Hugo Black articulated the decision as follows …
“The ‘establishment of religion’ clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between Church and State.'” 330 U.S. 1, 15-16.
So yes, the last part of that judgement in 1947 very much bound Jeffersons turn of phrase to the First Amendment, hence we are familiar with it today.
Until the supreme court says otherwise, then that is where things legally stand today.
Secularism is not about suppressing belief
The moment you allow religion into the political arena is the moment you are granting one specific shade of belief a special privilege.
From the viewpoint of almost every single variation of belief, every other variation of belief is wrong, hence there exists a strong emotional motivation to suppress all those other “false” variations. We can look back in history and observe how things panned out when a religious belief gained political power, but we need not do so, there are still nations that exist today where religious clerics dictate state policy. Examples that immediately spring to mind include several of the Islamic nations. In Saudi Arabia we observe that the Wahhabi grasp on the reigns of power enables them to discriminate against any other variation of Islamic belief that is not exactly aligned with their ultra-conservitive thinking. In Pakistan, there are specific laws that forbid members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community from even calling themselves Muslim.
Secularism is not about suppression of belief, but instead it is about the state being neutral when it comes to topics such as religion. This is the only way that enables all to practise their beliefs in complete freedom. Anything else will result in one specific variation both promoting itself and suppressing minorities.
Trumps proposals will in effect breach and demolish the existing wall of separation, and that will in turn lead to the oppression and discrimination of people for the religious ‘crime’ of being born gay, for simply refusing to accept the promotion of mythology as fact within an educational context, or for simply having a Muslim cultural heritage.