/ Last night, during a late night party at a friends apartment, I came to learn that one of the individuals I was speaking to is a conservative Southern Baptist. The conversation was already focused on religion and I was easily slipping into "Instructor" mode. As the Baptist began to tell me about his views, I asked him how he felt about Separation of Church and State.
Very quickly, the response came that our country was "founded as a Christian nation" and that Christians were under attack.
This was the typical sort of rhetoric that one hears from the Religious Right as of late.
Of course, I explained that our country was founded neither by Christians nor by atheists, but by Enlightenment era Deists who largely rejected the religious Orthodoxy of their day. That Jefferson did distribute a version of the Bible, but it was a version stripped of supernatural claims and made Jesus into a philosopher. I carefully noted that the Treaty of Tripoli, signed by several of the Founding Fathers and ratified by Congress, states explicitly that we are "in no sense a Christian nation". And that Benjamin Franklin stated that light houses were more useful than churches.
I also began to explain two different kinds of endorsement.
"I've been working on this situation in Roanoke," I remember beginning. "The Board of Supervisors there has been opening their meetings with a prayer. As the law is currently understood, this is illegal."
"Prayer is illegal?" he responded incredulously.
"No, that's a common misunderstanding. Anyone can pray anywhere; it's not illegal. What is illegal is government endorsement of prayer."
This misunderstanding -- that there is a distinction between government endorsement and personal endorsement -- is one of the most pervasive and dangerous equivocations to be heard from some religious conservatives. Certainly, not all religious conservatives make this mistake, and there is a long tradition in some Baptist denominations of defending the Separation of Church and State. As I related to my fellow party goer, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State is led by Baptist reverend Barry Lynn.
Nonetheless, this confusion is so common and so pervasive that I decided to write a blog article explaining it.
Government endorsement of x occurs whenever the government shows favouritism or preference for x over alternatives. There are some kinds of government endorsements which are not presently illegal; for example, a town government can endorse an electric company for the distribution of power to its residents. The government can endorse having a police force for the protection of its citizens and it can endorse its own laws.
However, at present, the United States government cannot legally endorse one religious perspective over another or over irreligion.
When the Roanoke Board of Supervisors sets aside meeting time to have a specifically Christian prayer, that's a direct endorsement of Christianity. It makes non-Christians feel unwelcome and is deeply exclusive. Additionally, it signals to the local Christians that their variety of religion is privileged by their government. The action reinforces divisions on the behalf of both Christians and non-Christians.
However, if an individual Board member quietly prays to him or her self at some point during the meeting, that's not government endorsement. That's personal or individual endorsement. It shows that he or she, as an individual, is a Christian, not that the government is affiliated with any particular religious perspective.
As far as I am aware, and contrary to the rhetoric of the Religious Right, no one has ever tried to get prayer removed from the public square. Instead, it is the unnecessary and illegal entanglement of government with religious viewpoints that people have fought against.
One often hears that disentangling the government from religion involves the creation of an atheistic government. But this is just patently false; what we want is a government that is neutral with respect to religion. We're not calling for "There is no God" to be emblazoned on our currency. We are not asking for our national motto to be changed to "In Reason, We Trust". Nor are we asking for government meetings to open with recitations from Dawkins' The God Delusion.
We're simply asking that the government not take sides in these issues.