CHURCH & STATE | A Critical Crossroads Many of Our Rights Rest at the Intersection of Church and State

Humanism is more than simply waking up every morning and declaring that there is still no god. The recognition that no mystical force oversees our lives, no deity with a master plan controls our fate, is step one. Step two is asking probing questions: If there is no god, therefore what? How are we to live? How are we to treat one another? What is the source of our ethics? What does it mean to be decent and good?

The American Humanist Association’s (AHA’s) recent conference, “Crossroads and Collective Futures,” explored these questions by examining the intersection between humanism and social justice. The conversation is necessary because if humanism fails to address issues such as systemic racism, attacks on LGBTQ+ rights (especially transgender rights), the suppression of women’s rights, and attempts to undermine democracy  it devolves into little more than a debating society. Yet humanists are clear on the question of god’s existence: All available evidence indicates that there isn’t one. People are hungry for the next step, and the AHA is providing it.

Intersectionality isn’t a new idea, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that it’s the key to the future. Humanism must provide an ethical framework that guides daily life—and that means addressing a host of issues—or it is of little value.

The conference made me wonder: Where else can intersectionality apply?

For the past thirty-five years, my profession has been to defend the separation of church and state. As I survey the landscape with the Supreme Court laying waste to the church-state wall and emboldened Christian nationalist organizations active in dozens of state legislatures, it’s apparent that we are under siege on all fronts—thus, we must defend on all fronts. That’s where intersectionality comes in.

When many people think about separation of church and state, issues like coercive prayer in public schools, the display of religious symbols on public property by government, and the diversion of taxpayer money into the coffers of religious entities through faith-based initiatives and school vouchers come to mind. Those might be termed “traditional” church-state issues, and all are important. But the reach of church-state separation goes far beyond them.

Last year, Americans United for Separation of Church and State celebrated its 75th anniversary. To mark the occasion, I did a deep dive into the organization’s archives, specifically, back issues of Church & State magazine. (The magazine has been published since 1948.) What I saw surprised me, especially in three areas.

Reproductive rights has often been viewed as a matter of bodily autonomy or women’s rights. But there’s a significant church-state dimension as well. At the time of Americans United’s founding in 1947, access to birth control was curtailed in states where powerful religious groups had succeeded in passing laws that not only banned birth control devices but even any discussion about artificial contraceptives. Doctors were gagged from talking about the topic even with willing patients. Americans United fought to overturn these laws, rightly arguing that they subjected what should have been a personal, intimate decision to religious control.

Censorship is usually perceived as a free-speech matter. Again, Americans United exposed the church-state angle. In the 1950s, a more puritanical age, books, magazines, films, and stage plays could be pulled from circulation or shut down if they offended certain religious bodies. Novels now considered classics were impossible to get in some parts of the country because religious leaders didn’t want people to read them. Americans United worked to overturn these oppressive laws, asserting that religious groups should have no power to control what people read, saw and experienced through the arts.

The final issue is LGBTQ+ rights. Admittedly, this issue was not on America United’s radar screen in the 1950s. But by the 1980s and into the ’90s, one sees a growing recognition that behind laws restricting LGBTQ+ rights lurked the heavy hand of fundamentalist religious groups, eager to convert their repressive theological views into law. When marriage equality became a nationwide issue, Americans United challenged Christian nationalist groups to articulate a valid secular reason why two adults of the same gender should not be allowed to marry. They were unable to do so. AU pointed that out in court.

Unfortunately, religious extremists have kept these issues alive. Abortion is illegal or all but illegal in several states, and access to birth control is under assault. A wave of book banning is washing over the country, targeting public schools and public libraries. The rights of LGBTQ+ Americans, especially those who are transgender, are under sustained attack.

Some political leaders brazenly boast about using religion as the basis for our laws. In Missouri, where Americans United is challenging a series of restrictive anti-abortion laws in state court, lawmakers quoted the Bible or religious leaders while debating the measure.

We’re also seeing the flipside of that—religion being used as an excuse to do nothing. Consider gun control and climate change. They aren’t often seen as church-state issues, but all too often, politicians have cited religious beliefs as an excuse not to act on these matters. In the wake of mass shootings, political leaders offer “thoughts and prayers” in lieu of policy proposals. In the case of climate change, some conservatives have argued that we don’t need to do anything because it’s all in God’s hands.

Increasingly, your life is being subjected to religious control in a host of ways. Church-state separation is the only remedy for that.

The “wall of separation” metaphor is so powerful in part because you can easily imagine a wall in your head. Now picture one with the issues humanists care about resting on top of it—reproductive freedom, LGBTQ+ rights, secular public education, the rights of non-believers and non-Christians, women’s rights, the freedom to learn, and so on. If that wall is undermined to the point of collapse, all those rights will fall as well—and there will be nothing to keep religion from being used as the basis for public policy.

Church-state separation intersects with a host of human rights and important policy initiatives. Always remember that, as we work to shore up that wall, we’ll be buttressing all those as well.