There’s a lot I don’t know as I write this column in early October: Who will be elected president? Will the results be challenged in the courts? Will Amy Coney Barrett be seated on the US Supreme Court?
Those questions might be answered by the time you read this. But no matter how things shake out politically, here’s one thing I do know: we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us if we want to rebuild the wall of separation between church and state.
The situation is indeed dire, and at times like this I’m reminded of the words of an old friend, Dr. James Dunn, a colorful Baptist minister and longtime head of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. Dunn was a strong supporter of church-state separation who worked to buttress that principle right up until his death in 2015. Dunn had been active in defending church-state separation for decades and knew a little secret: the job is never really done.
Toward the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, defenders of the wall of separation between church and state were feeling discouraged. That principle had taken quite a beating during Reagan’s tenure, which was marked by hostile administration policies and bad court rulings. Dunn had an answer to that. Addressing a conference sponsored by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, he employed an unusual metaphor: Defending religious freedom, Dunn asserted, is like washing your socks. The job is never done. If you want clean socks, you have to wash them regularly. Get used to it.
Today, supporters of church-state separation may be feeling discouraged again. Several federal courts, now stacked with appointees of President Donald Trump, are growing hostile to the principle we see as so vital. We’re bombarded with regular attacks on separation of church and state, and Christian nationalist groups have been emboldened. Our work is definitely more challenging.
Feeling distraught about this situation is understandable—I sure feel that way from time to time, and during my worst moments, I worry that my thirty-three years defending church-state might have been for naught.
Getting into a funk every now and then is understandable. Here’s what’s not understandable: disengaging from the political process, pulling out of the fight or giving up. Refusing to wash your socks is never the answer.
Americans United hosted a National Advocacy Summit in September, and during that event, several speakers spotlighted the need to stay involved. They offered tangible and practical advice for engaging with legislators and rallying opposition to dangerous proposals. They gave us winning strategies. They also reminded us of what’s at stake—not just our own rights, but the rights of our family members, coworkers, neighbors, friends, and community members.
Crucially, these speakers reminded us of our moral responsibility to speak out whenever anyone’s rights are threatened. We must act because it’s the right thing to do—for everyone.
In this current climate, all defenders of separation of church and state must join forces. Believers must work alongside nonbelievers. Members of the LGBTQ community must join straight allies and friends. This work must rise above questions of gender, age, race, and political affiliation.
If we nurture that spirit now, we’ll be able to carry it forward in the future as we begin the hard work of rebuilding the church-state wall. That project won’t be easy—and it’s going to take some time—but rest assured that it will come.
Here’s why: what’s being forced on our nation right now is a noxious form of Christian supremacism marching in lockstep with a false vision of “religious freedom” that mocks that very principle by using it as a cover for pernicious forms of discrimination and control of others. These visions are dangerous, and that’s why they cannot last. They are ill-served to who we are as a people; they are out of step with an emerging America that is more diverse than ever.
It’s important to remember that every rights movement in US history took time to take root. Women began pressing for the right to vote in the nineteenth century but didn’t secure it at the federal level until 1920, and then only on a racially limited basis until 1964. The civil rights movement took years to come to fruition, as did the subsequent drive for LGBTQ rights. Yet we know that each one of these movements was worth the time and effort and made our nation a better place.
Similarly, we can never assume that our rights are secure. Like a car, they require constant maintenance. In October, Supreme Court Justices Clarence M. Thomas and Samuel A. Alito signaled their desire to overturn Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 high-court ruling that extended marriage equality nationwide. A court stacked with right-wing ideologues just might do it. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a court victory or a bill passage has settled an issue. Defending our rights takes ongoing effort and a certain amount of repetition—just as James Dunn warned us years ago.
Admittedly, Dunn’s metaphor may have been a tad too playful. After all, it’s a lot easier to wash your socks than it is to rebuild a constitutional right. But the core of his argument is solid: you’ll never get change or improvement if you don’t take the steps to bring it about, one by one. (Of course, there’s always the possibility of buying entirely new socks by rewriting or amending the Constitution. That’s unlikely in these highly polarized times.)
The erosion of church-state separation as the protector of true religious freedom is a serious matter. Yet we can reverse current trends and rebuild that wall, brick by brick. Your commitment to engagement is the first step—and you must be willing to accept the fact that some of the work you do won’t bear fruit until you’re gone. Do it anyway. The next generation will remember you for it.
So grab those soiled socks and detergent, and head for the washer. We have a lot of work to do.