This blog explores and examines the intersections of rhetoric, race, and religion.
Sunday, March 30, 2014
America, the religious?
DEBATES OVER religious freedom in the United States are suddenly everywhere. Last week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, whose conservative Christian owners want to be able to refuse to cover certain kinds of contraception required by the Affordable Care Act. Legislators in Arizona passed a bill that would let businesses decline to do business with gays and lesbians on religious grounds, although the conservative governor vetoed the law. And in December, the ACLU prevailed in the latest twist in a long-running case when a federal district court ruled that a large cross at a veterans memorial in San Diego had to come down.
The assumption underpinning many of these cases is that America’s founders, mindful of religious persecution in Europe, put in place a uniquely high wall between religion and government in the First Amendment. Despite the contentiousness of issues like the contraception mandate, it’s widely thought that the modern Supreme Court has been attempting to hew to the founders’ Enlightenment views in ensuring the American public sphere is secular.
But what exactly did the founders intend? We’re all getting it wrong, argues Steven D. Smith, a law professor at the University of California at San Diego. In a new book, from Harvard University Press, entitled “The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom,” Smith takes aim at what he believes is a false story about the relationship between church and state in the United States.
In an argument that might affront secular liberals, Smith argues that virtually every founder took for granted that religion would play a role in the governance of the nation, and would have understood the First Amendment as allowing that. (Massachusetts, on whose constitution the US document was partly modeled, had a state religion until 1833.) The most devout drafters saw the history and future of the nation through an explicitly Christian “providentialist” lens, but even the more secular-leaning leaders were comfortable with public Christian prayer and symbols.