Church-State Separation is Alien to Many Americans' FaithRoundup
tags: conservatism, religion, Supreme Court, evangelicalism, Christian Nationalism, Church-State Separation, School Prayer
Caleb Gayle is an award-winning journalist who writes about the history of race and identity. He is a fellow at New America, PEN America, and Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and author of critically acclaimed book, WE REFUSE TO FORGET.
I was raised in a very specific American faith. This American faith is not patriotism, not a love of this country—though it contains some of that. Nor is it Christianity—though it contains some of that too. It is the belief that Church and state should never have been separate in American life, despite all the un-Christian aspects of the Founders, such as their distinctly secular philosophies and their explicit, repeated commitment to that separation. Today’s Christian nationalists have fought for this particular faith over decades.
And that fight paid off when, at the end of June, the Supreme Court released its long-awaited decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. Joseph Kennedy, a high-school coach, had sued the Bremerton School District for firing him for praying on the field at the conclusion of football games. Prayer in schools, a practice that had been considered illegal since Engel v. Vitale was decided in 1962, was instantly legal again. Conservative-Christian groups did nothing to hide their excitement. The American Center for Law and Justice, a legal-advocacy organization founded by Pat Robertson and run for decades by one of Donald Trump’s personal attorneys, Jay Sekulow, issued a statement that read, “For a long time, countless progressive elites and liberals have emphasized that a wall of separation has been established between public life and religion. In reality, of course, there has never been a wall of separation.”
There has never been a wall of separation. My younger self would have celebrated.
I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the buckle of the Bible Belt. I imagine that my parents moved our family there because, among many reasons, Tulsa bore no resemblance to New York, the city where I was born. Tulsa’s brown, flat, predictable landscape; its many churches and Christian schools; its political leaders whose speeches sound like sermons and preachers whose sermons sound like political speeches—these features were a welcome relief to parents, not just mine, who wanted to raise “God-fearing kids” in a world that seemed ever bent on secularizing.
The Christian school I attended from sixth to 12th grade, most years as one of the only Black students, branded itself “classical.” By classical, the school’s leaders meant that the school’s traditions were not of this age, and not of this world. “To be in this world, but not of it” is a synthesis of biblical texts formed to command followers of Christ, then and now, to realize that being in this world, involved in its cultures, is not a choice. But to become of it—for our behaviors, political leanings, and the like to resemble those one would find in the “secular world”—is a sinful step too far. So the school tried to carve its own path.
Every Christian school I had attended before this one taught mathematics, English, history, a foreign language, and, if it had sufficient budget, physical education. Those institutions also shoehorned a Bible class into the course schedule. That’s what made it a “Christian education.” But this school was of the view that education wouldn’t be Christian without a Christian worldview finding its way into every single class. In science, we learned that God created the world some 10,000 years ago. Biology was one part biology and two parts disputing evolutionary biology.
What haunts me most today, what I am still unlearning, is the school’s accounting of this country’s history. My belief now—which was my hunch then—is that the purpose of the history education I received was to convince me that God has a plan and that that plan has always included America as a shining city on a hill. Although the public fights today about whether this country’s founding was in 1619, when enslaved people arrived on these shores, or in 1776, when enslavers who moonlighted as politicians declared independence from the Crown, our school had a third view: America had been in God’s mind from before the dawn of civilization.