Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Blog Against Theocracy!

july-theo.jpgThis weekend, 1-4 July, is a “blogswarm” known as “Blog Against Theocracy.”  While I differ from some in not believing that most of the major figures in the U.S. Religious Right want a classic theocracy , an actual rule by a clerical elite, I do think there is a concerted effort to erode the historic separation of church and state in the U.S.  The goal is to privilege Christian churches, especially fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, and make others second-class citizens.  One of the places where this is seen is in the Bush administration’s “Office of Faith-Based Initiatives” (expanding the Clintonian bad idea of “charitable choice”) in which the tax dollars of all U.S. citizens, Christian and non-Christian, religious and non-religious, are used to support certain religious programs (e.g., faith-based programs of prison reform, ministries to the poor and homeless, parochial schools, etc.).  This allows the government to have bad social policies and spend a small amoung of money getting religious groups to clean up its messes instead of filling the social contract to forge a just and compassionate society itself.  It also turns healthy, independent faith-based programs into unhealthy leeches with their hand out for Caesar’s coin, competing with each other for the crumbs from Caesar’s table instead of persuading their believers in the strength of the cause.  And, of course, it throttles the prophetic voice of the churches since they won’t want to jeopardize their government funds!

Groups that promote religious liberty (and it’s legal safeguard, church-state separation), such as the Americans United for Separation of Church and State,  the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, Friends Committee on National Legislation,  the American Civil Liberties Union, and others believe such government promotion of faith-based groups is unconstitutional. I agree.  The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . . ”  Those two religion clauses, known as the (NO) Establishment Clause, and the Free Exercise Clause, respectfully, mean that the government can neither promote to retard religious faith and practice.  The No Establishment Clause is sometimes interpreted narrowly as ruling out any official state religion (e.g., the way that the Church of England is the established church in the U.K. or the Lutheran Church established in Norway, etc.), but the clause actually forbids any law which even “respects” an establishment of religion–which promotes a particular faith or faith in general over unbelief.  Government is not to be in the religion business. The Office of Faith-Based Initiatives seems to be a clear violation of the Constitution.

But the U.S. Supreme Court, under the new rightwing majority led by Bush-appointee Chief Justice Roberts, dealt a blow to the struggle for church-state separation this past week.  In Hein v. Freedom from Religion Foundation, the Court threw out a challenge to this Office of Faith-Based Initiatives by a group of atheists, agnostics, etc. by saying that they had no legal standing to sue in this case because they were not directly enough involved!  Now, why any group of taxpayers lacks “standing” to challenge the inappropriate use of tax revenues is beyond me.  Who would have standing to challenge this clearly unconstitutional law? Does this decision also make it harder for ordinary citizens and taxpayers to challenge corporate or government malfeasance on other matters (no more Erin Brockovich?)?

Americans United believes the ruling, while disappointing, will not affect most challenges to the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives.  The Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty agrees. In its amicus brief (a “friend of the court” legal opinion offered by an outside party) on Hein, the BJC said, “When taxes levied and appropriated by Congress are spent in violation of the Establishment Clause, a taxpayer may constitutionally challenge such expenditures because he suffers a direct and concrete injury that is caused by the illegal expenditure and that would be redressed by enjoining it.” And when the dissapointing ruling came down, the BJC said, “It will be more difficult to challenge discretionary executive branch spending under the Establishment Clause. Nothing has changed when it comes to challenging the exercise of Congress’s taxing and spending powers to promote religion.”

But this ruling shows that, with the Bush appointments of Roberts and Alito to the high court, the theocrats (or theocrat lite-types) have strong allies.  The strict separationists may now be in the minority on the Supreme Court.  But the final bulwark for religious liberty is not Congress or the courts, but the people. We must be on guard for religious liberty–including liberty from religion for unbelievers (because faith must be free and uncoerced)–and this is best achieved when government is forbidden not only to hinder, but also to “aid” religious organizations through tax revenues.

True theocrats (e.g., the “dominionists” of the Christian Reconstruction movement) and their much more numerous allies in various “Christian nationalist” organizations are, in principle, no different from their Islamist counterparts who would undermine democracy in Muslim majority nations and seek to impose fundamentalist versions of Islamic religious law.   We may be many steps away from Christian versions in the U.S. of Saudi Arabia’s “religious police,” but our history shows that we have been there before. I have no desire to return to the days when Quakers were hanged on Boston Commons, “witches” were burned at the stake in Salem, MA, and Baptists jailed throughout New England and Virginia for “preaching without a state license.” I don’t want to return to the days in the 19th C. when the U.S. government, in a strong “faith based initiative” paid Protestant missionaries to establish schools for Native Americans on the conditions that they be forbidden to use their native languages and forced to pray Christian prayers and be forcibly converted.   I don’t want parochial schools funded with taxpayer money or evangelistic programs for prisoners promoted by the government.  And I certainly don’t want the government copping out on its responsibilities (wasting billions in illegal wars, for instance) knowing that it can then count of religious groups to clean up its messes (somewhat) for much less revenue than it would take to keep the messes from happening!  I don’t want the prophetic voices of faith-based communities bought off, either.

The Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, and its state counterparts, needs to be abolished.

I can express the compelling need for strict separation no clearer than in the words of the late George W. Truett, founding pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas and one time president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Truett also served at one point as president of the Baptist World Alliance (from which the SBC has now withdrawn) and Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary is named in his honor.  On 16 May 1920, on the steps of the U.S.  Capitol, to a crowd of 15,000, Truett gave a stirring speech on religious liberty (reenacted this past Friday by a number of Baptists from different denominations supporting the work of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty) which included these words:

“It is not the prerogative of any power, whether civil or ecclesiastical, to compel men[sic] to conform to any religious creed or form of worship, or to pay taxes for the support of a religious organization to which they do not believe,” he said. “God wants free worshippers and no other kind.”


July 1, 2007 - Posted by | blogs, church-state separation, religious liberty


  1. […] of Texas Link to Article baylor university Blog Against Theocracy! » Posted at Levellers on Sunday, […]

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  2. Good post, Michael. I have to admit that I was wary of the Blog Against Theocracy last year, and was having similar reservations this year–probably because it’s so hyped by some virulent atheist blogs I read. But you’ve helped me see it in a different light. Thanks!

    Comment by Kerry | July 2, 2007

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