“F*** Islam! God bless Donald Trump!”
We’re being swindled.
Trumpism raises a fundamental question: What is American identity? Are we a Protestant Christian nation, as Trump supporters imagine? Or are we, in the words of President Obama, an all-inclusive “we” that “belongs to everyone”?
These questions are challenging since everyone conceives of America differently. But here’s an easier one: Why does America separate church and state?
After all, that is the reality. Church-state separation is a celebrated American tradition — free expression for all those in the melting pot, be they Christians, Muslims, or not. Yet when Trump peddles religious nationalism in the public arena, he and his supporters effectively promote Christianity-state integration via laws against abortion or L.G.B.T. rights and religiously motivated foreign policy.
Which America are we?
THE American narrative, as we know it today, begins with tolerant forefathers who escaped religious persecution to guarantee free practice here. We represent a land of freedom, which extends to religious expression and congregation.
Historically speaking, that was not actually so.
Rather than freedom of religion, our forefathers designed freedom of Protestant Christianity. The First Amendment intended less to protect all religions and more to prevent one Protestant sect from dominating the government at the expense of the others. And this “freedom” only applied federally (until 1947). On the state level, Protestants exclusively ran the show. North Carolina’s constitution of 1776, for example, required that no office holders could “deny the being of a God, or truth of the Protestant religion.” Such tests for office were common.
The political science research agrees: Protestant Christianity infiltrated the American political system. We incorporated Puritanical beliefs into institutional structures, imbued our political culture with Judeo-Christian values, and expanded the concept of citizenship as evangelicalism spread. In the words of two scholars, our church-state relationship was a “tangled web” that favored integration.
When societies produce hegemonies like this, or the dominance of one set of values, those values affect everyone. Such has been the case with Protestantism. For example, our Calvinist forefathers believed that God “predestines” certain souls for salvation, which manifested, they believed, as hard work and prosperity — the Protestant work ethic. Its permeance in our nation produced the American Dream: that any individual, by tugging at his bootstraps, can succeed.
Religiously inspired values have translated into action, driving social and political movements. The most notable is civil rights. That “prophetic movement” grew from the organization of black churches and drew on shared, Christian values to radically re-orient American thought on equality within the Protestant framework, positively progressing the nation in the process.
But while some Protestant influences have improved America, some have not, like the “prosperity gospel.”
This twentieth-century evangelical theology equated economic success with religion. If you work hard, the logic went, God will “bless” you. Although seemingly tame, it snowballed into its modern effect that many Americans believe that even the most underprivileged, unfortunate, or discriminated simply aren’t working hard enough. That the poor deserve to be poor. The homeless deserve to be homeless. And they therefore do not deserve welfare, higher wages, or charity.
Americans have violently discriminated against non-Protestants, too. During the nineteenth century, new waves of immigration came from Catholic, Southern and Eastern Europe, not the Protestant North. Religious cleavages plus economic fears incited discrimination and violence against Catholics, like “no Irish need apply” hiring policies or the 1831 anti-Catholic riots in Philadelphia.
Anti-Catholic nativism means that, as an Irish Catholic, myself, I would have been considered “un-American” at the time.
This discrimination continued into the modern era. Internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II prohibited the practice of the Shinto religion. Restricted abortion rights eliminate a woman’s agency over her own body and health care. Shootings of abortion clinics make it violent. And the unequal provision of marriage, which has legal and tax implications and, therefore, constitutes a government right, discriminated against L.G.B.T. Americans.
Here’s the crux: Religion spreads values that can be healthy for adherents and societies. But these values can also provide kindling for religious nationalism. Rabid leaders can then ignite them. And when they do, it gets ugly.
IN THE 1980s and 1990s, the Bharatiya Janata Party of India adopted a Trumpian campaign strategy of sponsoring religious processions alongside political rallies. It co-opted Hindu symbols and drew on shared values. And once associated with the majority religion, the party incited religious nationalism. It attacked a coalition government that “pampered” minorities like Muslims, and it mobilized voters around a mosque constructed on supposedly sacred Hindu land.
While the party leaped in votes and parliamentary seats, its strategy was not without consequences. In the end, Hindus physically dismantled that mosque in mob fashion during a government-sponsored “religious ceremony.” And the party’s processions were trailed by anti-Muslim pogroms, committed by vigilante Hindus disgusted by “intolerant” Muslims. It was violent. It was undemocratic.
India learned better.
We’ve learned better, too. Our history bears the violent realities of church-state integration in waves of nativist anti-otherisms. We have realized that integration does not produce a pleasant peace, no “great” America of glory and prosperity. Instead, it produces a divided nation, a discriminatory and bloody one.
Americans pride themselves on religious freedom, and increasing diversity has required a constantly expanding national identity to calibrate our actions to values. We have become more conscious of minority religions and the areligious, who grow in number. As such, in 1947 with Emerson v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court extended protections for religious freedom to state law.
And we’ve become conscious of Christianity-inspired discriminations against abortion and L.G.B.T. rights, which, a majority believe, deserve legal protection.
The implications of separation extend beyond historical circumstance. Thanks to L.B.J., we mandate that churches not influence politics, not just the reverse. Legally, a priest cannot openly endorse a political candidate, lest his church lose tax exemption. That said, religious leaders can preach about political generalities, which nearly two-thirds of them do. The most common topic? Ironically, religious liberty.
Economically speaking, it is more advantageous for religious groups to support separation (and disavow religious nationalism). If another religion or sect rose to power, which is far likelier than yours’ rising, the result would assuredly be disadvantageous. In that fight, most would lose.
The political science research chimes in, too. Worldwide, tight church-state integration negatively correlates with civil liberties (like freedoms of education, expression, and economy) and political rights (like free and fair elections). In other words, integration negatively correlates with democratic principles themselves. (After all, look to the Islamic “democracies” of the Middle East or anti-religious Communist states as examples.) And, the research says, government involvement in religion increases persecutions against minority groups.
Yet increasing American separation has been accompanied by increasing political polarization. While many Christians embrace immigration, diversity, and religious liberties for all (not just themselves), many do not. They claim to be “under attack” and vote for Tea Partiers that promote Protestantism as policy. Republicans like Ted Cruz chastise President Obama for refusing to say “radical Islam,” as if the battle against ISIS represented the divine battle of Christianity against Islam itself. And, of course, Donald Trump proposes a ban on Muslim immigration.
Regarding ISIS, we have research on that, too. The Islamic State represents a “religious club,” an economic model for group behavior. These “clubs,” like Hamas, Hezbollah, and ISIS, don’t just provide religion to their members — they provide social services, stability, and protection. They tightly integrate religion, state, and welfare, giving members a choice: radicalize or lose stability. In war-torn areas like Syria, this choice is life or death, superseding any ideological misgivings.
In other words, Islamic “ideology” isn’t exactly the problem. Members join ISIS for the same motivations that drive all human beings: partly values, and partly the desire for safety, food, shelter, and the best life possible.
In reality, ISIS represents a mosaic of religious, geopolitical, economic, and social concerns. But by “carpet-bombing” it into oblivion, which destroys resources and stability, or by framing international teams as Christian versus Muslim, we do not stop it. We strengthen it. We necessitate its stabilizing presence, mobilize its members and other anti-American governments to radicalize, bolster its recruitment, and spread violent extremism.
Such is the power of church-state integration.
And such is the weight of America’s choice. We have two camps, two distinct visions of church-state relations. And, by extension, two visions of American identity.
But only one is dangerous. Trumpism, as it relates to religion, risks repeating our darkest moments in history. Today, Muslim Americans face the same violence and discrimination as nineteenth-century Catholics. Supreme Court nominees that would overturn Roe v. Wade or Obergefell v. Hodges jeopardize the rights of women and L.G.B.T. Americans. In fact, Republicans have already attempted to legally restrict abortions and anti-discrimination protections. No democracy is immune to the threat of religious nationalism, and India gives a modern example.
Not one of those groups? Trumpism threatens you, too. A foreign policy of religious wars that ignores the complex reality of ISIS endangers all Americans. It makes us less safe. And Trumpism endangers American democracy as we know it, imperiling fair and open representation and celebrated civil liberties. We are the land of the free, not the land of one authoritarian group that ejects the rest, that may include you today, or tomorrow not, just as well.
The reality is undeniable. We are a nation of Protestants, whose twisted history of Christian influence is unchangeable, withstanding revisionism. But our laws, foreign policy, and identity are not. We consciously choose them. Anti-Catholic nativism was a choice. Trumpism is, too. We self-define. We fashion our values, goals, and visions, and we democratically realize whatever nation best aligns with them.
Although we do not choose to be a nation of Christians, we choose to be a Christian nation. And this choice matters. For everyone in it and everyone not.