I spent fifty years in the Christian church. Twenty-five of those years were spent pastoring Evangelical churches in Ohio, Michigan, and Texas. I attended an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Bible College in the 1970s. Most my Christian life was spent either attending or pastoring Baptist churches. As young aspiring pastor, I was taught that there was a strict separation between church and state; that freedom of religion was absolutely crucial to the life of the American Republic and to the status of religion. Church and state were equal planes, each having their sphere of influence. Churches and preachers didn’t meddle in matters of state, and the government was expected to keep its nose out of church business. In the late 1970s, things began to change with the establishment of the Moral Majority by Paul Weyrich, Ed McAteer, and Jerry Falwell. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, scores of parachurch groups were started for the express purpose of reclaiming America for God. These promoters of American nationalism and exceptionalism flexed their muscles during the recent 2016 presidential election, delivering to Americans their next president, Donald Trump.
The last thirty years have brought a radical change in Evangelical thinking concerning the freedom of religion and separation of church and state. The impenetrable barrier between church and state that President John F. Kennedy spoke of in the 1960s is now considered a fabrication of liberals meant to destroy Evangelical, conservative Catholic, and Mormon Christianity. One presidential candidate, Rick Santorum, even went so far as to say that the separation of church and state is a myth; that the founding fathers never meant to exclude Christians and their religion from influencing and controlling government. These deniers of separation of church and state believe, to the man, that the United States has been uniquely chosen by God — a special nation above all others. Believing that the United States is a Christian nation, these theocrats spend their waking hours attempting to take over government at every level. Having trampled over the wall of separation of church and state, these warriors for God intend on returning America to what they consider its Christian roots. Now that Donald Trump has been elected president and God-fearing, flag-waving Republicans control Congress, we can expect to see a full-bore frontal assault on laws and policies meant to keep church and state separate.
While Evangelicals have discarded the notion of the separation between church and state, considering it myth, they continue to say that they support the First Amendment and the idea of freedom of religion. However, their idea of freedom of religion is far different from what has generally been understood in the past. The freedom of religion and separation of church and state go hand-in-hand. Can we have the freedom to worship or not worship as we please if the government gives preference to Christianity? As history clearly shows, any time religion and state are one, freedoms and liberty are lost and people die. Who is it that is clamoring for the national registration of Muslims and the banning of immigrants from non-Christian countries? Who is it that is demanding that prayer and Bible study be permitted in public schools? Who is it that wants creationism taught as science and the 10 Commandments posted on public school classroom walls? Who is it that is tirelessly working to overturn societal progress on same-sex marriage, homosexuality, and abortion? Who is it that is clamoring for the government to adopt a nationwide voucher program that will pay for students to attend private Christian schools? Evangelicals and their conservative compatriots in other sects, that’s who.
So when Evangelicals talk about the freedom of religion, remember what they really mean is freedom for THEIR religion, and their religion alone. While they with their lips say that they support the freedom of all religions, what they really mean is that they support your right to worship your God freely as long as it doesn’t interfere with or influence the American religion — Christianity — and its control of government. Muslims, Buddhists, and other non-Christian religions will be tolerated only so far as they stay out of the way. According to theocratic Evangelicals, their God alone is the one true ruler over all, and the Bible is the standard by which we should not only govern our lives but our nation. And those atheists who have tirelessly worked to make sure the wall of separation of church and state is absolute? They will be expected to stop harassing fine Christian school officials and government leaders who only want to follow the dictates of God and the Bible. People who spent their lives working to change the legal system and its brutal punishment of the poor and people of color will likely see a return to the days of an eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth. Again, appeals will be made to the Bible and its code of justice. It should not surprise anyone when Evangelicals call for re-criminalizing homosexuality, adultery, fornication, and marijuana use.
Remember these things the next time your Evangelical friends, family members, or coworkers say they support the freedom of religion. You might want to ask them what they mean by “freedom of religion.” Do they mean freedom equally for all religions? Do they mean freedom to not believe in any gods at all? Do they support the separation of church and state? If not, do they believe America is a Christian nation? Would they be okay with a Muslim president or the building of a mosque next door to their Baptist Church? If Christian prayers and Bible readings are permitted in public schools, would they be okay with Muslim prayers and Buddhist teachings being given the same level of support? As you ask these types of questions, you will likely find out that what your Evangelical acquaintances really mean when they say freedom of religion is “freedom for the Christian religion.” Believing that secularism equals socialism and communism, these worshipers of the Christian God want a culture that is dominated and controlled by Christian beliefs and philosophies.
Now that God’s Only Party (GOP) controls the federal government and most state governments, we can expect to see attempts to derail and destroy the social progress of the last fifty years. I suspect that savvy Evangelical parachurch groups will use state and federal courts to bulldoze the wall of separation of church and state, leaving its rubble as a monument to the days when social progressives thought they could challenge the authority of the Christian God. And it is for this reason that those of us who value religious freedom must not idly stand by while Evangelicals attempt to remake America into a new version of the 1950s. Don’t think for a moment that such monumental societal change cannot happen. It can and it will if we stand by and do nothing. It is time for us to quit whining about Bernie and Hillary losing. Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States and he has a Republican majority behind him who is anxious to re-create America in the image of the capitalistic Christian God. If Trump succeeds in putting several Antonin Scalia-like justices on the Supreme Court, we can expect to see a rapid undoing of decades of social progress. Sensing that they might have a short window in which get their way, Evangelicals will be working overtime to make sure that Trump and Congress put God back on the throne of the United States of Christian America. Those of us who value and understand freedom of religion and the separation of church and state must do everything in our power to make sure that this does not happen.
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