Courting danger with our rights
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Courting danger with our rights

On Monday, we observed July 4th, the one day each year when we celebrate the birth 246 years ago of the one nation on earth that offered people of all faiths—Jews included—and people of no faith a safe haven to practice their beliefs free of any government coercion. Never before in world history did religion of any stripe—Judaism especially—find more fertile ground for free expression than existed here from July 4, 1776, onward.

Sadly, and alarmingly, before we reach the 250th anniversary of that first July 4th, that promise of America may turn into a nightmare for anyone who is either not a Christian, or is the “wrong” Christian, thanks to the evangelical effort to Christianize America in its warped image. The effort received a huge boost in late June by three decisions issued by the Supreme Court of the United States.

In Carson et al. v A. Pender Makin, the court in effect endorsed the public funding of religiously affiliated schools that teach intolerance and hatred for anyone who is not a born-again Christian.

In Kennedy v. Bremerton (Washington) School District, the court virtually abolished a plethora of precedents restricting government at all levels from allowing Christian prayer at official functions, including in public schools.

In Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the court struck down Roe v Wade, effectively imposing a conservative Christian policy on Jews and everyone else whose beliefs support a woman’s right to choose. By overturning Roe, the court overturned their rights — our rights — in favor of conservative Christian beliefs.

Behind these rulings is the desire by the court’s conservative majority to recast the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which separates church and state, in a new and—certainly for us—frightening image. The Carson case especially is an outgrowth of a 2020 case known as Espinoza v Montana. In that case, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, cavalierly asserted that the establishment clause does not apply to state and local governments. As Thomas put it, the “Establishment Clause does not prohibit States from favoring religion.”

In other words, if a state establishes some Christian sect to be its official state religion, Thomas and Gorsuch would support that, and so might at least three other justices.

Groups on the Christian right wasted no time in calling for just that. The day after the Kennedy decision was handed down, for example, the radical right group America First Legal, which includes several Donald Trump loyalists among its leaders, called for a total overhaul of the establishment clause. In a statement released by Gene Hamilton, the group’s vice president and general counsel—he served under Trump in the departments of Justice and Homeland Security—the group urged the court to remove the states finally and unequivocally from being covered by the clause.

Thomas and Gorsuch clearly were channeling the late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia in this. In 2005, Scalia said that it was “demonstrably false” that the establishment clause protects religious minorities or nonbelievers. “Our national tradition has resolved that conflict in favor of the majority,” he wrote, and the establishment clause “permits this disregard….”

In other words, because there are more Christians in the United States than there are Jews or Muslims, for example, the Constitution not only favors and even promotes Christian beliefs, it offers the rest of us no protection.

What is “demonstrably false,” however, is Scalia’s twisted misreading of the Constitution. The establishment clause grew out of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which Thomas Jefferson wrote, he said, in order to provide religious freedom to “the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian, the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and [the] infidel of every denomination.” As Political Science Prof. James H. Read wrote in 2009, that statute “was the driving force” behind the establishment clause.

Lest there be any doubt where Jefferson and James Madison, who wrote the First Amendment, stood, in 1785, they successfully blocked an effort by Patrick Henry to establish Christianity as Virginia’s official religion.

Another founder, John Adams, often Jefferson’s and Madison’s bitter political opponent, clearly agreed with them on this. As president in 1797, he signed the treaty with Tripoli, which explicitly stated that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

The hypocrisy of the justices’ claim to be “originalists” who adhere to what the founders meant in writing the Constitution is clearly evident.

Beyond the court, for the moment at least, the evangelical Christian right has a stranglehold of sorts on the Republican Party that even reaches deep into the Congress. Among the Republican senators who espouse a Christianized America are Cindy Hyde-Smith (Mississippi), Cynthia Lummis (Wyoming), Roger Marshall (Kansas), Tommy Tuberville (Alabama), Rick Scott (Florida), and John Kennedy (Louisiana). As Kennedy once put it, “I am a Christian and believe that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. That belief informs every decision I make.”

Two senators with 2024 presidential ambitions who actively promote Christianizing America are Texas’ Ted Cruz and Missouri’s Josh Hawley. As a 2016 article from Religion News Service reported, “When Cruz says he wants to ‘reclaim’ or ‘restore’ America, he…wants to ‘restore’ the United States to what he believes is its original identity: a Christian nation.”

Some of the things Cruz has said over the years backs that up. For example, Cruz once said, “We can turn our country around, but only if the body of Christ rises up.”

In 2017, Hawley told this to a group of evangelical pastors:

“There is only one god. That god is Jesus Christ, who is seated on the throne and is lord over all, and…as believers, we are charged to…transform our society to reflect the gospel truth and lordship of Jesus Christ.”

Hawley, by the way, is no fan of Jews. He often thinly disguises his anti-Jewish views by substituting the word “cosmopolitan,” but “Jew” is clear from his context. In 2021, for example, he spoke at the National Conservatism Conference, and laced his speech with his chosen euphemism. Said Hawley, “This class lives in the United States, but they identify as ‘citizens of the world.’ They run businesses or oversee universities here, but their primary loyalty is to the global community.”

There is an even larger collection of Christianizers in the House of Representatives, including Reps. Lauren Boebert (Colorado) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (Georgia). In late June, Boebert told a church group that she is “tired of this separation of church and state junk….” Greene declares herself to “be a watchman on the wall” against those seeking to “destroy our [Christian] faith.”

In campaign after campaign this year, Republican hopefuls are touting their support for Christianizing America—and they are winning their primaries because of it. In Idaho’s Republican legislative primaries, for example, several candidates won by making Christian values central to their campaigns. It is also central to the campaign of Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee for governor of Pennsylvania, who calls church-state separation a “myth.”

Too many of us mistakenly believe those on the evangelical Christian right are our friends because they support Israel. They are not our friends. They support Israel only because it is a prerequisite for the return of Jesus, when “all Jews will either be converted to Christianity or be burned,” as President Jimmy Carter, who firmly rejects any such belief, explains it. (For a fuller explanation, see Chapter 11 of his book, “Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis.”)

To understand just how much these people hate Jews, one need only tune in to such virulently antisemitic on-line evangelical Christian sites as TruNews (with more than 18 million views on YouTube), or the immensely popular YouTube channel (62 million views) run by the Holocaust-denying Steven Anderson, pastor of the Faithful World Baptist Church in Tempe, Arizona. It is filled with his “warped views of Jews and Judaism” and “hateful anti-Semitic myths,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.

As Jews and as Americans, we must take the threat these people on the evangelical Christian right pose very seriously.

These people—in Congress, in our courts, in our state and local governments, even on our school boards—want to take away from us the religious freedoms our Founding Fathers quite pointedly gave us. They are succeeding for now, and they must be stopped.

To do that, we must get seriously involved in the election process in meaningful ways, not just by voting in primaries and elections, but by educating ourselves about the candidates we vote for, and by supporting candidates locally and nationally in any way we can who we are certain will uphold the establishment clause.

Make no mistake: If the current Republican Party, dominated as it is by these radical Christianizers and bolstered by the current Supreme Court, wins a congressional majority in 2022 and the presidency in 2024, freedom of religion as we know it will be in danger of disappearing.

For us, should that happen, future July 4ths will be meaningless.

Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.

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