Amy Coney Barrett is not America’s greatest threat to the separation of Church & State

Amy Coney Barrett is not America’s greatest threat to the separation of Church & State

By Sonia Schmidt ‘21; Image: Alex Merto at the New York Times

With Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings this week, the ever-tenuous separation of church and state is on many peoples’ minds. Barrett’s devout Catholicism is well-documented, and some are questioning her ability to separate her faith from her judicial rulings. Barrett has also been a member of Christian Charismatic group People of Praise, which is reportedly particularly patriarchal and conservative, explicitly placing men at the “heads” of households, making them the final decision-makers.

While Barrett has addressed this concern and suggests that her judicial rulings will represent her fair interpretation of the Constitution, not her personal religious beliefs, many are skeptical due to the apparent strength of her commitment.

Barrett’s discussion of her beliefs rings similar to what Late Justice Antonin Scalia has stated in the past. He also explicitly declared that his personal Catholicism would not affect his judicial commitment. He described his process of constitutional review as originalist, similar to the language Coney Barrett uses to describe her own, and Scalia notably stated that the Establishment Clause does not exclude the United States government from favoring religion over non-religion, or religion over any particular denomination.  

The establishment clause states: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

Scalia’s idea and interpretation of this clause showcases a facet of American discourse which is at the heart of discussion with Barrett’s confirmation hearings, though not explicitly: Christian rhetoric.

Christian rhetoric has become so imbued in American political discourse that it seems normal. While there is no official state religion of the United States, Christian rhetoric is used heavily and consistently in policy discussions, particularly those made by members of the Republican party, and judicial rulings.

This does not make Barrett’s likely confirmation any less disturbing for those of us who prefer the so-called “wall of separation” between Church and state to remain high, but it does point out that Barrett’s beliefs are not the most pervasive threat to American secularism.

American secularism is most threated in these moments that we forget that we are hearing Christian rhetoric, the moments that we hear speeches and laws and do not question their religious language.

Interestingly, the idea of secularism itself, the idea that religious life must be separate from public life, draws inspiration from the Protestant idea of the sacred and profane, that spirituality must be separate from the profanity of everyday life. This claim of secularism has been used to marginalize non-dominant religions or forms of religious expression in the United States, requiring that religions can only be valid if they are able to adhere to this separation.

Ironically, Christians are not held to this standard; When Christian politicians call upon the saving grace of Jesus Christ during war times, they are seen as patriotic, rather than inherently placing value on Christianity. There use of this explicitly Christian language, I would argue, is a form of establishing a state religion. Or, at the very least, it is clearly favoring one.

This pervasion of Christian rhetoric in politics is undoubtedly due, at least in part, to classical liberalism’s assertion of God-given rights under Natural Law. With the language of classical liberalism, and later America’s founding documents enshrined in a deistic, if not explicitly Christian worldview, it becomes difficult to separate their connection, even centuries later.

Notably, this Christian rhetoric has been used as justification for American domination, suggesting that the United States is a moral authority. Christian language is inherent in American mythmaking, marking Americans as the chosen people. Moreover, rhetoric and mythmaking shape how the country interacts with others on an international stage.

Groups, religious or otherwise, turn to collective mythmaking when they do not have any primordial history that they can call upon for group cohesion. The United States of America is no different. Its mythmaking, bound with its racist hetero patriarchy, is necessary for it to maintain this moral superiority, which has allowed it to internally justify colonialism. When these myths are questioned, this superiority begins to crumble.

Christian rhetoric is seen vividly during the period of Manifest Destiny, where it was told that it is America’s God-given right to expand and conquer. This tone continued through the era of Imperialism, and continues today, particularly in the mouths of Tea Party Republicans.

Recently, the Republican National Convention (RNC) displayed ed some of this American mythmaking at work. Vice President Mike Pence stated:

“Let’s run the race marked out for us. Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents. Let’s fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire. And let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith and freedom and never forget that where the spirit of the Lord is there is freedom — and that means freedom always wins.”

He nearly directly quotes verses from Corinthians and Hebrews in the Bible, replacing mentions of Jesus with “Old Glory.” He speaks of a predestined “race,” and that there is freedom in God. By directly replacing Jesus with “Old Glory,” he maintains the idea that America, like Jesus, is the savior of the world, the purveyor of democracy, and the ultimate moral authority. He interweaves Christian rhetoric with the myth of American exceptionalism.

Similar sentiments are echoed in the religious leaders brought to say prayers during the convention. Reverend Norma Urrabazo said:

“Thank you lord for your blessing over our nation…[Quoting 2 Corinthians] where the spirit of the lord is, there is freedom…this country was founded by the people for their God.”

Christian rhetoric places the United States in an exceptional position as the chosen few, who were granted democracy through God-given rights, and who thus were able, perhaps even had a responsibility, to proclaim this to the world, and demand the respect and submission of all others who dared to question it.

While Barrett’s potential confirmation is concerning for the separation of church and state, I counter that the wall of separation has never been very high. The pervasiveness of Christian rhetoric, the way it leaks in unquestioned, that to me is much more concerning.

4 thoughts on “Amy Coney Barrett is not America’s greatest threat to the separation of Church & State

  1. An intriguing argument for thinking that the wall of separation is more an aspiration than a fact. It brings out how pervasive are implicit and explicit Christian rhetoric/assumptions in US public life. Is the wall of separation the only kind of secularism, though? Many people think that a state is secularist if no religion dominates political life. On that view, it’s fine if people–even politicians–use religious ideas and arguments in politics. The threat to secularism comes only when one religion dominates political life, or when non-religion is proscribed. Does any one religion now dominate US political life? A lot of the political rhetoric this op-ed points to is drawn from the Old Testament/Tanakh as much as from exclusively Christian sources. Notions of a chosen people are central to Judaism and do figure in Islam (indeed, some passages in the Quran say that ALL People of the Book are the chosen people). Universalist rhetoric and frames are just as important to Islam as to Christianity, and do figure in Judaism. Famous speeches by Washington, Lincoln, or MLK draw on Judeo-Christian ideas and images as much as specifically Christian ideas. Islam takes as holy books the Torah and an original Gospel of Jesus. And it’s not clear to me that non-religion is proscribed, either, although there are incentives for electoral candidates to make some minimal religious displays.

    Of course, it’s a stretch to say that Islam is competing on equal terms with Christianity or non-religiousness in US public life. And even though Trump explicitly defends JUDEO-Christian values, his background imagery of a beleaguered fundamentally Christian nation seems to have contributed to the wave of anti-semitic acts since his inauguration. That raises troubling questions about Judaism’s inclusion today. Still, just before he came to office, couldn’t we say that there was at least as much non-religious, Judeo-Christian, and Jewish rhetoric in public life as there was Christian rhetoric? And if so, does that mean Christianity still dominated US political life in 2016? It probably did in, say, 1980. But in 2016?

  2. Sonia, I think in the wake of Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation, I agree that it is so important to think about the way Christian rhetoric pervades many facets of American life — and it’s not just Republicans that perpetuate Christian rhetoric, as much as Democrats would like to think we have a clear wall up between church and state. I am so intrigued by the idea that many politicians use religion as a rallying cry when they have no other unifying characteristic, as has become especially prevalent as the GOP attempts to bridge the gap between Trump-Republicans and more center-right Republicans. I also think the way that Christianity has been prescribed to the Republican Party is crucial to understanding the separation of church and state, as it has become an increasingly partisan issue, especially in regards to civil rights. I know you are also investigating the way Christian rhetoric shapes American foreign policy ventures — and has shaped domestic ventures, like Manifest Destiny, for centuries — but I would be very interested to learn about whether the “wall” has ever been higher in the United States? Do Democrats actually maintain some semblance of separation of church and state, or are we perpetuating Christian ideality simply by engaging in the government that was built on white, Christian, patriarchal philosophy? These are things to consider when attempting to understand what separation can and should look like. If Justice Amy Coney Barrett does come to resolutions in a similar manner to Justice Scalia, then we are certainly looking at decades with a strong, conservative Court, though I don’t think her religious views are what put the Court at risk… It has already fallen to the two-party system, as Justices are so often characterized as “liberal,” or “conservative” based on the president who appointed them. All around, I am interested to see how the “wall” evolves in years to come and how the perception of the Court changes.

  3. Thank you for this informative and engaging read, Sonia! I started paying close attention to Christian rhetoric used by politicians when Trump and Pence were elected in 2016. The line between the Church and the State, to me, has since been increasingly becoming blurrier. After the 2016 election, I feared that these Christian elected officials would make political decisions based on their religious beliefs, and this fear has since been exacerbated with Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation. It’s no secret that many Christians are simultaneously homophobic, citing the bible as the primary source of their anti-LGBTQ sentiment. Coincidentally enough, since Trump has been elected in 2016, he has attacked the LGBTQ community countless times, pushing back decades of work that LGBTQ activists and allies have done for equality. I fear Amy Coney Barrett will make very similar decisions despite suggesting that she will not intertwine her religion with political action.

  4. Thank you so much for this discussion Sonia. Being Jewish I like to think that I recognize Christian rhetoric when I see it, and the tendency for Christian rhetoric to spill into every little facet of American pride and culture has always irked me (not that I’m particularly proud of the United States but I digress). As much as the United States lays a proud claim to secularism and the separation of church and state, as you explain, Christian rhetoric is everywhere. It’s in the pledge of allegiance, in Christmas planning for the White House, on our very currency (In God we trust), and in the prayers that congress people say before a meeting. Furthermore, and I think this is an interesting way to look at it while discussion Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination (and subsequent confirmation), the people currently in our government aren’t all atheists or devoid of their personal and religious opinions. While Barrett’s nomination is a big deal and not good for the idea of secularism due to the strength of her convictions and the importance of the Supreme Court, our government is already full of religious-minded and influenced individuals.

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