Let us pray.
…Forgive us oh mighty God, for our sins of commission and omission. Remind each senator of the words of Jesus of Nazareth in Luke 10:7: “Those who work deserve their pay.”
We pray in your sovereign name, Amen.
In Dr. Barry Black, Chaplain, U.S. Senate, January 24, 2019
Though the opening phrase of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees the right of people to practice the religion of their choice with these words, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” unfortunately, nowhere does it guarantee the people freedom from religion imposed by people in power.
How does the very existence of Christian Chaplains for both the House of Representatives and the Senate not amount to the imposition of religion?
How do the tax supported salaries and expenses of the Congressional Chaplains’ Office (estimated at $415,000 for 2011 alone) not violate the government’s injunction against the establishment of religion?
Many of our framers, the chief architects of the United States Constitution, most clearly did not have these measures in mind. James Madison, familiarly called the “Father of the Constitution,” was most responsible for the First Amendment along with Thomas Jefferson.
Madison argued against the appointment of chaplains to the two chambers of Congress, writing in his “Detached Memoranda,” circa 1820: “The Constitution of the U.S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes….The establishment of the chaplainship to Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles….”
And why does the government require the practice at presidential and other “swearing in” ceremonies of the placement of the left hand upon the Bibles (composed of the Jewish Bible and the Christian Testaments) and the raising of the right hand a swearing in to the name of “God”?
Congress established The National Day of Prayer during the Cold War in 1952 (and added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, “In God We Trust” to U.S. coins during the Civil War, and to paper money in 1956).
Virginia was one of the first states following the Revolutionary War to address the issue of religion and government when Thomas Jefferson, who held deist beliefs, drafted “An Act for the Establishment of Religious Freedom” in 1777. Jefferson’s proposal passed into law in 1786 in Virginia.
Then, constitutional framers such as Jefferson and Madison negotiated a compromise with Protestant sectarians, which led to the clause written into the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Though nowhere in the U.S. Constitution does the phrase “separation of church and state” appear, it was originally drawn from a letter President Thomas Jefferson signed on January 1, 1802 to the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptists Association.
Jefferson held deep concerns over the possibility of an erosion of First Amendment’s religious freedoms, as did Madison. In James Madison’s “Letter to Edward Livingston,” July 10, 1822, Madison opined: “Every new and successful example, therefore, or a perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance; and I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.”
Everyone in our country has the right to hold any, or no, religious beliefs as they consider appropriate to suit their lives. This is a basic constitutional right, and more importantly, a basic human right to which all are entitled.
Many of the framers of the U.S. Constitution were aware of the dangers of entangling religion with governmental activities and public policy. In fact, though, we need to ask the critical question of how “separate” have religion and government stood in the United States of America?
A Historical Overview
Alexis de Tocqueville, French political scientist and diplomat, traveled across the United States for nine months between 1831 and 1832 conducting research for his epic work, Democracy in America.
He was astounded to find a certain paradox: on one hand, he observed that the United States promoted itself around the world as a country separating “church and state” (which itself is a Christian term since primarily Christians refer to their houses of worship as “churches”), where religious freedom and tolerance were among its defining tenets, but on the other hand, he witnessed that “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America.”
He answered this apparent contradiction by proposing that in this country with no officially sanctioned government religion, denominations were compelled to compete with one another and promote themselves to attract and keep parishioners, thereby making religion even stronger.
While the government was not supporting Christian denominations and churches, per se, religion to Tocqueville should be considered as the first of their political institutions since he observed the enormous influence Christian denominations had on the political process.
Though he favored U.S. style democracy, he found its major limitation to be in its stifling of independent thought and independent beliefs. In a country that promoted the notion that the majority rules, this effectively silenced minorities by what Tocqueville termed the “tyranny of the majority.”
This is a crucial point because in a democracy, without specific safeguards of minority rights — in this case minority religious rights — there is a danger of religious domination or tyranny over religious minorities and non-believers. The majority, in religious matters, have historically been adherents to mainline Protestant Christian denominations, and more and more to Catholicism, who often imposed their values and standards upon those who believed otherwise.
Social theorist Gunnar Myrdal traveled throughout the United States during the late 1940s examining U.S. society following World War II, and he discovered a grave contradiction or inconsistency, which he termed “an American Dilemma.”
He found a country, founded on an overriding commitment to democracy, liberty, freedom, human dignity, and egalitarian values, coexisting alongside deep-seated patterns of racial discrimination, privileging white people, while subordinating peoples of color.
While racism continues, this contradiction has been powerfully reframed for contemporary consideration by religious scholar, Diana Eck: “The new American dilemma is real religious pluralism, and it poses challenges to America’s Christian churches that are as difficult and divisive as those of race. Today, the invocation of a Christian America takes on a new set of tensions as our population of Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist neighbors grows. The ideal of a Christian America stands in contradiction to the spirit, if not the letter, of America’s foundational principle of religious freedom.”
Dominant group power and control is maintained and strengthened by “hegemony,” which describes the ways in which the dominant group, in this case Christians in general and predominantly mainline Protestants and Catholics, successfully disseminate its particular form of social reality and social vision in such a manner as to be accepted as common sense, as “normal,” as universal—even though only an estimated 30 percent of the world’s inhabitants are Christian—and as representing part of the natural order, even at times by those who are marginalized, disempowered, or rendered invisible by it.
According to Weinbaum, “[H]egemony is a means for social control, not through overt force, but rather through covert tactics, dictating society’s norms.” This religious hegemony maintains the marginality of already marginalized religions, faiths, and spiritual communities.
Beaman wrote that “the binary opposition of sameness/difference is reflected in Protestant/minority religion in which mainstream Protestantism is representative of the ‘normal.'”
A form of hegemony is “Christian hegemony,” which can be defined as the overarching system of advantages bestowed on Christians. It is the institutionalization of a Christian norm or standard, which establishes and perpetuates the notion that all people are or should be Christian thereby privileging Christians and Christianity, and excluding the needs, concerns, ethnic, religious, cultural practices, and life experiences of people who are not Christian.
Often overt, though at times subtle, Christian hegemony is oppression by intent and design, but also it comes in the form of neglect, omission, erasure, and distortion.
In the service of hegemony is what is termed “discourse,” which includes the ideas, written expressions, theoretical foundations, and language of the dominant culture. These are implanted within networks of social and political control, described by Foucault as “regimes of truth,” which function to legitimize what can be said, who has the authority to speak and be heard, and what is authorized as true or as the truth.
The concept of oppression, then, constitutes more than the cruel and repressive actions of individuals upon others. It often involves an overarching system of differentials of social power and privilege by dominant groups over subordinated groups based on ascribed social identities or social group status.
And this is not merely the case in societies ruled by coercive or tyrannical leaders, but, as Young argues, also occurs even within the day-to-day practices of contemporary democratic societies.
Pulitzer Prize winning author and journalist Chris Hedges writes of a current Christian fascism sweeping the country as evidenced by the Supreme Court’s overturning of the almost 50 year freedom to the right of an abortion on June 24, 2022.
In addition, the Court ruled that Maine must include religious schools in state tuition programs, that Montana’s program to support private school must also include religious schools, that a 40-foot cross can remain standing on Maryland state property, that employers can deny birth control coverage on religious grounds to female employees, that provisions of employment non-discrimination laws do not apply to teachers at religious schools, that Christian religious-based children’s service agencies can ignore a state or city’s non-discrimination laws by denying same-sex couples the ability of becoming foster parents.
While Hedges discusses an “ascendency of Christian fascism in the United States,” in fact, Christian fascism has formed the very foundations on white the United States – from colonial times to the present – has been built.
A Land Without Common Memory
A quote frequently shared by one of my university students, a member of the Nipmuc Nation, one of the original peoples in what is today known as Massachusetts, was stated by the Indigenous Leader George Erasmus: “Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.”
This student refers to a story the U.S. tells itself: “A land of discovered lands, God’s chosen people, exceptionalism, opportunities, a Christian nation etc.” He refers to a land on which its people tell itself a story of its exceptionalism and benevolence, which “is ingrained in our society and inculcated within our system of jurisprudence and our schools.”
“On the other hand,” he continues, “we have millions of people with the shared and lived experience of genocide, enslavement, forced removals, stolen lands, boarding schools, Jim Crows laws and institutionalized racism and on it goes.”
“From 1800 to 1900, during the time of expansion in the U.S., the population of Indigenous people went from 600,000 to 237,000. This is in conjunction with states being added to the Union and Natives being killed or removed. We see here, a genocide rate of 60%.”
“So,” he emphasized, “we don’t have a ‘common memory.’”
And I ask, can we progress as a united people without a basic starting entry point of the history and the legacy of that history that we all share?
In 1455, Pope Nicholas called his Christian followers to “to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans,” take their possessions, and “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.”
This edict known as the “Doctrine of Discovery” gives license to genocide of Black, brown, and non-Christian people across the world. It was the stimulus for Columbus’ travels and is based on patriarchal Christian white supremacy.
Beginning the first day Europeans stepped foot on what has come to be known as “the Americas” up until this very day, decisions over who can enter the United States and who can eventually gain citizenship status has generally depended on issues of “race.” U.S. immigration systems have reflected and have served as this country’s official “racial” policies at any given point in time.
Europeans on the North and South American continents established their domination based on a program of exploitation, violence, kidnapping, and genocide against native populations.
For example, the Puritans left England to the Americas to practice a “purer” form of Protestant Christianity. They believed they were divinely chosen to form “a biblical commonwealth” with no separation between religion and government. They tolerated no other faiths or interpretations of divine precepts. In fact, they murdered and expelled Quakers, Catholics, and others.
The American colonies followed European perceptions of race. A 1705 Virginia statute, the “Act Concerning Servants and Slaves,” read: “[N]o negroes, mulattos or Indians, Jew, Moor, Mahometan [Muslims], or other infidel, or such as are declared slaves by this act, shall, notwithstanding, purchase any christian (sic) white servant….”
In 1790, the newly constituted United States Congress passed the Naturalization Act, which excluded all nonwhites from citizenship, including Asians, enslaved Africans, and Indigenous peoples, the later whom they defined in oxymoronic terms as “domestic foreigners,” even though they had inhabited this land for thousands of years.
The Congress did not grant Indigenous peoples rights of citizenship until 1924 with the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act, though Asians continued to be denied naturalized citizenship status.
They employed scriptural justification to support the institution of slavery, for example:
Ephesians 6:5-6: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.”
And Luke 12:47: “That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows.”
Later, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate states asserted: “[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.”
Many slaving ships had on board a Christian minister to oversee and bless the passage. Slaving ships included the names: “Jesus,” “Grace of God,” “Angel,” “Liberty,” and “Justice.”
The U.S. Supreme Court, in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), decided a case on U.S. labor and constitutional law. It judged that “a negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the U.S.], and sold as slaves,” whether enslaved or free, could not be an American citizen and therefore, could not sue in federal court; and the federal government had no power to regulate slavery in federal territories acquired after the creation of the United States.
Dred Scott, an enslaved man of “the negro African race” had been taken by his slave masters to free states and territories. He tried to sue for his freedom. In 7–2 decision written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the Supreme Court denied Scott’s request, and Scott remained enslaved.
Central to the European American conquest of territory was the concept of Manifest Destiny: Providence destined U.S. expansion from the Atlantic to the Pacific (“from sea to shining sea”) by the so-called “Anglo-Saxon race.” This justified in the mind of the Europeans the theft of Indigenous people’s territories and a war with Mexico.
In reaction to increasing numbers of European immigrants into the country in the 1850s, a movement calling itself The American Party (also known as The Know-Nothings) formed to “purify” the country by limiting or ending Irish Catholic immigrants and others, and ending the naturalization of those already here.
The American Party established itself as a Nativist anti-Irish Catholic movement by instigating fear among the larger population that the U.S. will soon be dominated by Irish and German Catholics unless their immigration were ended.
The movement perpetuated the illusion that the Pope had been plotting to control and dominate the U.S. While a small movement in relative numbers, its primary supporters were European-heritage Protestant men.
In 1875, Congress passed the Page Law, which specifically reduced immigration of women from Asia.
The editor of a newspaper in Butte, Montana wrote in 1870: “The Chinaman’s life is not our life, his religion is not our religion. His habits, superstitions, and modes of life are disgusting. He is a parasite, floating across the Pacific and thence penetrating into the interior towns and cities, there to settle down for a brief space and absorb the substance of those with whom he comes into competition. His one object is to make all the money and return again to his native land dead or alive….Let him go hence. He belongs not in Butte.”
To “civilize” Indigenous peoples and make them “productive” members of Christian European American society, between 1879 and 1905, white Christian teachers operated 25 Indian boarding schools for the U.S. government throughout the U.S. This system was organized by Lieutenant Richard Henry Pratt, who founded and personally supervised the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.
As Pratt related to a Baptist audience regarding his theory of education: “[We must immerse] Indians in our civilization, and when we get them under, [hold] them there until they are thoroughly soaked.” And, “We must kill the Indian in him to save the man.”
Pratt and the white teachers stripped Indigenous children of their cultures: they cut short males’ hair, they forced them to wear Western-style clothing to take a Western name, they prohibited students from conversing in their native languages and English was compulsory, they confiscated and destroyed all their cultural and spiritual symbols, and they imposed and mandated the learning and adoption of Christianity.
Europeans, when they invaded the North and South American continents and Africa, missionaries attempted to impose primarily Christian orthodoxy. Joel Spring discusses “cultural genocide” defined as “the attempt to destroy other cultures” through forced acquiescence and assimilation to majority rule and Christian cultural and religious standards.
This cultural genocide works through the process of “deculturalization,” which Spring describes as “the educational process of destroying a people’s culture and replacing it with a new culture.”
An example of “cultural genocide” and “deculturalization” can be seen in the case of Christian European American domination over First Nation peoples whom European Americans viewed as “uncivilized,” “godless heathens,” “barbarians,” and “devil worshipers.”
White Christian European Americans deculturalized indigenous peoples through many means: confiscation of land, forced relocation, undermining of their languages, cultures, and identities, forced conversion to Christianity, and the establishment of Christian day schools and off-reservation boarding schools far away from their people, which combined constitute “settler colonialism.”
“Civilizing” Indians became a euphemism for Christian conversion. Christian missionaries throughout the United States worked vigorously to convert. A mid-19th century missionary wrote: “As tribes and nationals the Indians must perish and live only as men, [and should] fall in with Christian civilization that is destined to cover the earth.”
More ultimate questions need to be raised as the world spins around, as individuals and nations since recorded history have attempted to explain the mysteries of life, as spiritual and religious consciousness first developed and carried down through the ages, as people have come to believe their way stood as the right way, the only way, with all others as simple pretenders, which could never achieve the truth, the certainty, the correct and right connection with the deity or deities, and as individuals and entire nations raped, pillaged, enslaved, and exterminated any “others” believing differently.
In reality, all religious doctrine stems from uncertainty and conjecture, from multiple gods, hybrid gods and humans, from Mount Olympus and before, to Earthly deities and the heavens, to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, to the Burning Bush, to the Covenant and the parting of the Red Sea, to the Immaculate Conception and Resurrection, to Muhammad’s rising to Heaven from the Rock, to the Golden Tablets, all beginning with the human creation of god(s).
Before and during his presidency, George W. Bush and other conservative Christian politicians consistently have called for voucher systems whereby students could choose to attend private parochial schools at public expense, and supported prayer in the public schools as well as at school sporting and other events.
Some religious, governmental, and educational leaders also push for the teaching of Creationism (reframed as “Intelligent Design”) to explain the genesis of the world and all its inhabitants.
In his benediction address at the inauguration of our 46th President Joseph R. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, Reverend Dr. Sylvester Beaman invoked the name of “God” four times, “Divine favor” twice, and employed the pronoun “you” for God many times.
Biden talked about what “the Bible says” quoting Psalm 30:5: “Weeping may endure for a night but joy cometh in the morning.”
Biden is certainly not unique but, rather, a member of the majority of Presidents, 27 out of the previous 45, who cited the Bible during their inaugural addresses with a total of 64 biblical passages.
George Washington argued for invoking the Bible during his first inaugural address when he cited Psalm 82: “It would be peculiarly improper,” he said, “to omit in this official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of the nations.”
President Donald Trump officially proclaimed Sunday, September 3, 2017 (traditionally the sabbath for most Christian denominations) as a National Day of Prayer to commemorate the devastation to life and property caused by Hurricane Harvey. The day before, while visiting with sufferers of the storm’s wrath, Trump said that “Tomorrow’s a very big day, so go to your church and pray and enjoy the day.”
In 1988, Congress set the annual National Day of Prayer as the first Thursday in May. President Barack Obama, under whose presidency the court declared it unconstitutional chose to ignore the ruling by issuing a proclamation beginning: “Throughout our Nation’s history, Americans have come together in moments of great challenge and uncertainty to humble themselves in prayer.”
Bush and other elected leaders have invoked their Christian faith as the foundation of their political ideology. While governor of Texas, Bush officially declared June 10, 2000 as “Jesus Day,” and he advised all Texans “to follow Christ’s example by performing good works in their communities and neighborhoods.”
Anyone can believe anything they wish, whether others find those beliefs laudable or offensive. When, however, the expression of those beliefs denies other individuals or groups their full human and civil rights, a critical line has been crossed, for their actions have entered the realm of oppression.
The Supreme Court’s conservative Christian-based ruling reversing Roe v. Wade is only one example of the patriarchal white supremacist Christian fascist Theocracy that has polluted the United States.