By Chris Hedgpeth
There’s a dumb joke I like to make whenever I see a church called “First Baptist” in which I point out that the next town over also has a church that claims to be the “First Baptist”, and that both of them can’t possibly be the first Baptist church. I once attempted this joke while in Providence, Rhode Island, and it failed horribly because the church I happened to be walking past was actually the first Baptist church in the United States. Though the structure was built in 1775, the congregation was established by a man named Roger Williams in 1638. Along with founding the colony that would become Rhode Island, Williams was an advocate for the separation of church and state and a proponent of religious pluralism, the idea that people with beliefs of all kinds can form a cohesive society.
That concept of religious pluralism espoused by Roger Williams is enshrined the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Because our government is prevented from establishing a state religion, it allows for an open exchange of ideas without the fear of repercussion or persecution. The First Amendment affords us not only freedom of religion, but also freedom from religion. In theory.
As I write this, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is deciding whether or not to confirm William Barr as attorney general. Again. Barr was attorney general during the latter half of George H. W. Bush’s presidency. During his tenure in the early 90s, Barr attacked the idea of a secular government by blaming issues including venereal disease and high abortion rates on the lack of religiosity in our public education system. In actuality, the religiously-motivated abstinence-only sex ed programs that are now mandated in more than half of the states in our country are tied to higher rates of both STD infection and teen pregnancy. Last November in an op-ed in the Washington Post, Barr and two other former attorneys general (Meese and Mukasey) praised recently former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ October 2017 memorandum in which he defended the actions of homophobic cake decorators and misogynistic businesses who selectively deny health coverage for female employees. All under the guise of religious freedom.
While that wall separating religion from government may have sprung a few leaks over the years, it’s still standing because of the efforts of a few important organizations. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (or just Americans United), was started in 1948 in response to an effort by Congress to publicly fund private religious schools. The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) was founded in 1978 as a platform to support women’s reproductive rights. Since then it has become the largest advocacy group for non-theists in the country, with over 32,000 members, including myself. And we can’t forget The Satanic Temple. TST is a political action group founded in 2012 in Salem, Massachusetts that (among other things) encourages religious pluralism in the public square.
There are those among us who would call America a “Christian nation,” either because of a poor understanding of history, or by the rationale that the biggest religion is the one in charge. Would those same people call this a “white nation”, or a “heterosexual nation”? Probably, but my point is that we are a pluralistic nation in many regards, and while sometimes we struggle with the acceptance of those who are different from us, it seems like we are slowly progressing toward the melting pot we are purported to be. So long as we continue to work together, as people of all faiths, to maintain the tenuous barrier between free thought and theocracy, our secular government can make rational decisions that benefit us all.