I confess the following description seems a bit overwrought, but here it is verbatim.
“Television viewers across the country were treated to a rare spectacle on December 20, 1971 — or was it really so unusual? The occasion was a football game, the Liberty Bowl at Memphis, Tennessee. During the halftime intermission the 30,000 spectators, many of whom were drunk, waved tiny American flags while the University of Arkansas band formed a cross on the playing field. As the band played “Silent Night, Holy Night,” a group of scantily clad baton twirlers bumped and ground to the rhythm. In addition, contingents of Boy Scouts, sailors, and marines went through various exercises, all courtesy of the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, sponsor of this patriotic circus. What an obscene perversion of two revered and meaningful symbols: the cross and the flag.”
This description opens the 1972 book “The Cross and the Flag,” a collection of essays by religious conservatives concerned about the connection between conservative Protestants and conservative politics.
I reference this book as a way of noting that various forms of blending of church and state, despite our nation’s official commitment to separation of church and state, has a history in this country.
Drop back a few years earlier. In the 1950s when I was in junior high school (the designation of grades 7 through 9 in Little Rock, Ark. at that time), every Monday morning our homeroom teacher would go down the class roll, filling out a form as she asked each of us if we went to church on Sunday. Did she ask: church or synagogue? I can’t remember. I can guarantee she did not ask: church, synagogue or mosque. I have no idea what was done with the information. Like so many bureaucratic forms, I imagine they wound up unread in a landfill somewhere. This was well before the days of recycling.
A memory from a few years later (my Central High School days): At a student council dinner, I was tasked with offering a prayer. A Jewish friend pulled me aside and asked if I would be willing to avoid praying in Jesus’ name. It was a mind- and heart-illuminating moment for me.
So, yes, the informal union of church and state has a long and complex history in our country, certainly predating the kind of illustrations just given. Indeed, the issue goes back to the founding of our nation.
Many such expressions can seem trivial, but they can also be disturbing, especially to those for whom such expressions can involve feelings of exclusion.
In recent days, however, the attempted union of church and state has taken a dark turn in a movement known as Christian nationalism, described in a recent Tribune-Herald article as “melding Christian faith with an exclusionary breed of nationalism.”
The dark side of this phenomenon was vividly and frightfully present in the terrorist attack on the nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6. From academic sociologists to commentators like the New York Times’ David Brooks comes the warning: You can’t fully understand the Jan. 6 event without recognizing the role of Christian nationalism. Christian symbols were prominently displayed including banners such as “Jesus Saves,” “Jesus is my savior/Trump is my president” and in a flag reading “Proud American Christian” while imprinted on the flag an ichthus, the profile of a fish — an ancient symbol of Christianity. Also visible was a 12-foot wooden cross, surrounded by individuals in prayer just prior to their violent invasion of the Capitol, an invasion that cost five lives and sent members of Congress fleeing.
In fact, Christian nationalism has been seen as such a dangerous ideology, dangerous to both church and state, that the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty has launched a Christians Against Christian Nationalism initiative.
One might think of Christian nationalism as the view that the United States should be understood as a Christian nation whose success is a part of God’s plan, and that aggressive means may be needed to ensure the privileging of Christianity by the state. Indeed, Baylor University professor Samuel Perry has described Christian nationalism as an “often militarized fusing of Christianity and American identity” which was clearly “on display during one of America’s darkest days.”
It occurs to me that philosophically, anyway, the best way to counter Christian nationalism is to recognize the remarkable value of the secular. The word “secular” may have a negative connotation to some, but the word “secular” as a description of our government should ring positively. We are not a Christian nation. We are a secular nation, meaning the state is separated from religion in the sense of leaving matters of faith to the private sphere (which is not to deny that one’s religious views may, and often should, play a role in one’s public life, including one’s responsible political choices).
Here is a thought experiment. Imagine a predominantly Muslim nation managed by conservative clergy who control public and private behavior by imposing rigid religious law on its citizens. Imagine further that you heard that as a result of a people’s revolution the country had now become secular. Would your initial thought not be a positive one, grateful that, politically, the country was no longer controlled by religious clerics?
I know, it is all very complicated because a secular government could be brutal too. We can all recall historical examples. But most of us in this country are, I think, deeply grateful to live in a society that separates church and state, that honors the citizen’s right to believe or not to believe as mind and heart lead, that values, in a word, secularism. Christian nationalism moves in a different direction. In opposition to political secularism, it involves a dangerous merging of Christian and American identities. Fortunately, strong efforts are now being launched to counter such attempts at identification.
Robert Baird is emeritus professor of philosophy at Baylor University.