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.