The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. my duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.
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. 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.
I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.”
– Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States, 1st January 1802
Despite over two hundred years of scientific progress, Darwin’s Origin of Species, the Big Bang, electricity and penicillin, it is a truly remarkable observation that the people who founded the United States of America, back then only a conglomerate of colonies rebelling against the largest empire in human history, were distinctively less religious than the people that currently lead it.
In late 1801, a group of Connecticut Baptists wrote a letter to President Jefferson expressing concern that their congregation might come under persecution by their state’s Protestant majority. Jefferson’s reply, which you can see above, makes clear that no religious group may use the powers of the state to serve their own interests, simply because the constitution of the United States, that sacred document which the American Right loves to selectively obsess over, makes clear that the state may not get involved in matters concerning religion.
Ever the diplomat, Jefferson was rather polite in his letter, although the same cannot be said about the opinions of America’s other founding fathers on matters concerning divinity. “We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this Land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition”, wrote George Washington in January 1793. John Adams was much clearer – “The Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” Benjamin Franklin famously stated that “Lighthouses are more useful than churches” while James Madison claimed that “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise.” Should you want further evidence you may find it here and here, and while we may debate context and intent, two facts are beyond scrutiny:
- The United States is not and was never a Christian nation.
- The people who founded it had some very strong opinions about the possibility of it becoming one.
Fast forwards to the year AD 2017 and the group that most of the founding fathers would have been comfortably placed in, that being among the “religiously unaffiliated”, which makes up about 20% of the country, has no representation in the US House or Senate. Not officially anyway. It is very likely that a considerable number of American legislators possess no religious beliefs, but such views are electorally toxic and best kept in the closet.
I certainly wouldn’t call myself a believer in the US Constitution in the sense of perceiving it to be infallible. It has been amended before, quite a number of times, and therefore anyone claiming that it should be respected point by point as it was at the date of its conception is either ignorant, misinformed or incredibly regressive. Once upon a time, the 13th amendment was passed, which abolished slavery. Some time later, the 18th amendment prohibited the sale of alcohol. Some time after that, the 21st amendment repealed the 18th amendment after everyone and their grandmother realised that prohibition is ridiculous.
The argument I wish to make is not that separation of church and state, as enshrined in the 1st amendment, is untouchable by virtue of being enshrined in the 1st amendment – that’s the kind of argument a twenty-six-year-old redneck from South Carolina makes when he doesn’t want to pass a background check before buying his seven-year-old daughter an assault rifle at Wallmart:
“Because 2nd amendment”
“Should gay people be allowed to marry”
“No, something something states rights something something 10th ammendment ”
“But the constitution also states that the Federal Government can override state’s rights on matters of civil liberties”
“Shut up libtard”
No, my point is simply that a secular state is one of the vital foundations of a modern civilised society and if you happen to agree then what is currently happening in the United States should serve to moderately terrify you. If you don’t, and instead think that the United States should become a Christian Saudi Arabia, then you’re probably reading the wrong blog.
It is no secret that Churches in the United States are exempt from taxes. Personally, I think that’s ridiculous, but one neat silver lining in that has also long been the fact that organisations registered under the tax-exempt non-profit status are prohibited from endorsing political candidates. It’s that beautiful wall again: the state doesn’t get involved in religion and religion doesn’t get involved in matters of state. It’s known as the “Johnson Amendment”, and it is also something which Donald Trump has recently pledged to “get rid of and totally destroy.” Legislation to do so is currently in the works.
It’s pretty obvious that President Trump himself is far from a fundamentalist Christian – he struggled to come up with a single biblical verse during the campaign and believes so much in traditional marriage that he’s had three of them. However, it is also pretty obvious that President Trump is far from the only person pulling the strings in the new administration. His Vice President, Mike Pence, is a long and proud member of the Evangelical Right. So, to a slightly lesser degree, is Steve Bannon, Trump’s right-hand man and chief strategist.
Donald Trump is a businessman and a reality TV star. He’s a narcissist who wants millions to cheer his name as other people make America great again for him. He doesn’t really care, or know, that much about policy, and my guess is that he’s more than happy to let the extreme elements in his inner circle to write it as long as he himself looks good. To “get rid of and totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, hence allowing giant money making machines hiding behind the veil of Christianity to donate billions of dollars to the Republican Party, is only the beginning.
Meet Betsy DeVos, the 59-year-old Calvinist and major Republican Party donor. DeVos has spent a lot of her time helping to fund the American right, and practically no time working in the education sector. The only reason I mention that is because she was just confirmed as the next United States Secretary of Education. How and why? Here are some numbers:
The first number is the total amount, in US dollars, that the DeVos family has donated to the Republican Party. The second number is the amount they have donated to Republican super PACs over the past two election cycles. The third number is the total amount in US dollars that the DeVos family has donated to sitting members of the United States Senate. The final number is how many Senators that money was split between.
Now, maybe I’m just being paranoid. Maybe the real reason Betsy DeVos gets to set out the education policy of the greatest country on earth is due to her personal excellence in the field (despite never having worked in it). Maybe every other person on the shortlist simply died in a car crash or during the infamous Bowling Green Massacre. However, what I frankly think is far more plausible is that Betsy DeVos was able to get nominated for the post, and then get approved by a majority of one, because the US political system has allowed her to bribe almost a quarter of sitting United States Senators.
But this blog isn’t about America’s terrifically broken campaign finance system, so why am I even mentioning her? The reason I mention Betsy DeVos, the new United States Secretary of Education, is because Betsy DeVos is a fundamentalist Christian and now one of the greatest threats to secularism in American schools.
During her time as a lobbyist, DeVos has spent decades trying to expand Charter Schools, which are essentially private and or religious institutions funded with public money. If you’re a US taxpayer, please understand that Betsy DeVos wants you to pay for children to be taught that the world is 6000 years old and that the reason we’re all here on earth is because a woman was lied to by a talking snake.
Just so her personal motives couldn’t be any clearer, DeVos had previously stated that education reform was a way to “advance God’s kingdom.” Over the years, she and her family have given millions of dollars to groups and organisations that advocate “intelligent design”, a slightly smarter way of saying “creationism.” While she has refused to clarify her personal views, DeVos’s previous rhetoric and record of political donations suggest that the next United States Secretary of Education does not believe in evolution.
Much of her talking points concerning public (state) schools have focused around the concept of providing “choice.” While that might sound innocent enough on paper, “choice” is the argument that intelligent design advocates have made for decades when advocating that their absurd theological junk deserves to be taught alongside established scientific theory. It is currently against the law in the United States for public schools to teach creationism, however, the same can currently be said about churches and political endorsements and the current administration is showing no restraint in bringing down that particular wall.
So, to recap – a Michigan billionaire with no experience in the public education sector who holds a wide aray of extremely regressive and anti-secularist and anti-scientific views has bribed her way to the position of United States Secretary of Education. Meanwhile, as his administration is stuffed with fundamentalist Christians who hold little regard for the 1st amendment, President Trump is throwing his support behind efforts to allow America’s extremely wealthy network of churches to get involved, both in terms of funding and rhetoric, in the US political system. As Trump prepares to build one wall and make American taxpayers pay for it, he is smashing another one down – and the consequences of this wall existing (or not) are far scarier.
EDIT: I think it should be pointed out that it is unlikely that DeVos and the Trump administration will attempt to enforce new anti-scientific curriculum on the US Public School system. What I find far more likely is that rules will be greatly relaxed to allow for that to happen locally in states where hardcore creationist views are widespread. Basically, if you live in California, I find it doubtful that your children will be taught about talking snakes anytime soon. That being said, substitute California for Arkansas (or practically any Bible-belt state of your own choosing) and the situation changes dramatically.