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Conscience Magazine

Breaking Down the Wall: The Religious Right’s Attack on Church-State Separation

By William V. D'Antonio September 12, 2014

BR-taking-liberties-bostonRobert Boston, a journalist and the director of communications for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, has written a no-holds-barred critique of those individuals and groups who, he says, are not satisfied with the religious liberties provided them by the US Constitution. He sets out to show how similar efforts have been made throughout US history to force beliefs and values—mainly, but not exclusively, regarding human sexuality issues—on all members of society. This has been done by attempts to persuade or convert, which are fair enough, but also by using local, state and federal government laws to force adherence to moral codes that stem from one belief system. It is this misuse of the government for doctrinal purposes that Boston finds objectionable, and his slim volume attacks this practice from several angles.

Boston has spent a good amount of time studying the psychology of Religious Right leaders as evidenced by their speeches. He concludes that they are truly disturbed by what they perceive as the moral decay of American society, which they feel forces them to choose between their family values grounded in their view of religious liberty, and another worldview (incorrectly seen as exclusively secular) that fosters the “false freedom” of homosexuality, unrestrained divorce, nonmarital sex, etc. It’s an incorrect but deeply held perception of what threatens a good society. By contrast, the author maintains that society is most threatened by these ideologues of the Right, and that our country cannot endure if it fails to confront and halt the imposition of one group’s religious beliefs on all who live in our pluralistic nation.

For Boston, real religious liberty depends on the “wall” separating church and state. It is protected by the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall pass no law regarding the establishment of religion.” This authentic religious liberty is something that everyone should support, because practices threatening to break down that wall threaten everyone. Perhaps no attack on this separation is more dire than the Right’s “deliberate attempt to redefine religious freedom,” a multi-leveled assault skillfully depicted in the book. Religious ultraconservatives posit “religious liberty” and church-state separation as an either-or proposition. To the author, this is a false choice, and he counterattacks with a review of the history that brought forth the First Amendment. The essence of Boston’s argument is that he has no problem with the Religious Right, or Religious Left for that matter, devising rules and beliefs by which to govern themselves. His objection lies in their attempts to pass laws that would require their beliefs and values to guide everyone’s public behavior as well. In his words, “Fundamentalist religion that seeks to merge with political power and impose its dogma on the unwilling is the problem.”

The affirmation of the right to believe or not believe is something that developed over time in the US, from early religious freedom proponent Roger Williams to Founding Fathers James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. These men had seen the negative consequences of privileging any single religion over another, and they decided that the best way to prevent that repression was to make this caveat the substance of the First Amendment to the Constitution. The reader who is sympathetic to the argument that what one religious group calls a “sin” does not justify making a law out of this belief will find this historical review supportive and useful.

The book makes another historical point about the religious groups that dominate the right side of the political spectrum—they haven’t always worked together. There was a specifically Protestant ethos that was at the height of its ascendancy throughout the 19th and into the first half of the 20th century. That influence extended to public schools, where the Lord’s Prayer was said every morning and Bible reading was common. The dominance of Protestant practices in public schools was one of the reasons why, in 1884, the Catholic bishops committed themselves to building the Catholic parochial school system. The irony was, and is, that the Catholic bishops were not necessarily opposed to religion having a set role in society—they have always, however, been very particular about what role religion is assigned to play, whether in education or politics. When it came to evolution, the US Catholic hierarchy followed the lead from Rome and its support of scientific knowledge, which it distinguishes from theological knowledge.

Though he starts from a different standpoint, Boston, like the bishops, is very interested in how the US answers the question: “What should be the role of religion in politics?” Also, some of his core beliefs overlap with those of the Catholic hierarchy. After a list of examples in which the Religious Right, especially conservative Catholic bishops, have used direct and indirect methods to convince their followers and the general public to oppose same-sex marriage, Boston stresses the primacy of conscience. He asserts that “the right of conscience is precious [and] all religious groups have the right to be heard—but none have the right to be obeyed.”

Some religious groups have become very skilled at blurring the line set between preaching and politicking. The chapter on politics begins with an explanation of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax law exemption for 501(c)3 nonprofit organization—how it applies to churches, synagogues, etc.—and how these regulations are abused. The reader will learn that houses of worship do not even have to fill out papers to request tax-exempt status. They automatically have it by declaring themselves to be houses of worship. These mosques and parishes are not supposed to take part in political campaigns by, for example, supporting one or another candidate. Nevertheless, every year some religious leaders participate in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” and deliver overtly political sermons to flout the IRS rule. Others have found ways to pass off political campaigning under another name. Here, Boston cites the use of “voter guides,” which ostensibly help the people in the pews to understand church teachings, but leave them with the strong impression that a certain candidate or party represents their values. In addition, lobbying at the state and federal levels is a time-honored practice among religious groups and individuals seeking laws that support their beliefs.

The Right is not only interested in the freedom of religion clause of the First Amendment—in the cultural sphere, it has often attacked freedom of speech. Boston provides classic examples ranging from art galleries forced to remove items that were deemed offensive to one or another faith group, to movie censorship instigated under the leadership of a Catholic bishop in Cincinnati. In all, Boston provides a lengthy review of the ways religious groups and individuals censored or tried to censor what Americans saw, read and even what they heard in popular music. In the process, he admits, there might have been some instances in which bands went over the edge in challenging religion, but the author excuses these excesses by asking, “How else were they supposed to excite rebellion in bedrooms all over the suburbs?”

The chapter closes with a detailed account of the Christian Right’s efforts to stave off the so-called “War on Christmas.” The issue of whether people greet each other with “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” is an interesting example of a slowly developing process of culture change, one of many that have occurred. To a reader trying to see a carefully developed argument, I found Boston’s impatience with the Religious Right to be excessive here.

Taken as a whole, this book drives home an important lesson: what really constitutes religious persecution. North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan are examples of countries where there is real persecution of people whose religious beliefs do not fit with those of the ruling powers. That is hardly what is going on in the US.

Taking Liberties does not confine itself to identifying problems. The resolution of church-state conflicts lies in resolving the four different relationships that exist between the government and entities that provide services to the public: those that are government-run (such as public hospitals); private/religious (e.g., churches or mosques); as well as for-profit/secular and quasi-public/church-affiliated entities. The book’s definition of the last two is somewhat unintuitive. A for-profit secular entity here refers to a private business owned by a devoutly religious person or persons, such as the Green family, owners of the Hobby Lobby corporation, who took their quest for special rights based on the proprietors’ religiosity to the Supreme Court, and won. The quasi–public/church-affiliated category poses the most challenges to church-state separation because these colleges, hospitals and social service agencies are sponsored by religious organizations but often have (direct or indirect) ties to the government as recipients of grants and public contracts. Working to help resolve these conflicts are progressive cultural currents, such as the dramatic change in the public’s support for same-sex marriage, as well as constantly changing political trends, public attitudes and social groups seeking to find a way to live according to their conscience and moral autonomy. Whether and how these changes will affect the current polarized state of the US Congress is not addressed, however.

The book is a quick and easy read; but it is often a bit more strident and disparaging of those Boston calls fundamentalists and intransigent believers. Thus, it seemed to this reader that the book’s style is not likely to win over many readers other than the already convinced. And that is regrettable, since he is addressing one of the central polarizing issues of our time, namely, what religious beliefs held by individuals or groups are of such moral importance that they may be encoded into laws that others may oppose.

Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You the Right to Tell Other People What to Do
Robert Boston
(Prometheus Books, 2014, 198 pp.)
978-161614-911-6, $19.95

William V. D'Antonio
William V. D'Antonio

is a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America. His recent publications include American Catholics in Transition and Religion, Politics and Polarization: How Religiopolitical Conflict Is Changing Congress and American Democracy.