In the era of President Trump, the line between the separation of church and state continues to blur. An issue that America seemingly surpassed long ago has now come back into the light with the newest conservative President.
Today’s presidency shows an eerie resemblance to many of the ideas found in the 1960’s film Inherit the Wind. This film presents a fictionalized version of the Scopes “monkey” trial of 1925. In this trial, Tennessee high school teacher John Scopes was tried for violating the state’s Butler Act, which prevented the teaching of evolution.
After viewing the film Inherit the Wind the question that comes to my mind is, are we really that far off in today’s presidency? While teachers are no longer arrested for teaching evolution in schools, the separation between church and state has become an issue during the Trump Administration. Whether it is appointing ultra-conservative and religious members into office or opposing laws that keep the church out of the government, America’s own religious freedom is at stake in the current presidency.
In 2010, Kat Kramer, the widow of the film’s director, made a statement about the film, “If you ever listen to the Christian stations on the radio, they are still upset over this film. I finally called them one day and said, ‘It is not about the Scopes trial. It’s about the freedom of thought, freedom of speech. It is the 1st Amendment.’”
The separation of church and state has historically been an essential part of the constitutional rights of American citizens. In his book Separation of Church and State, Philip Hamburger stated that, “Two centuries later, Jefferson’s phrase, ‘separation between church and state,’ provides the label with which vast numbers of American refer to their religious freedom.” This separation allows many Americans to freely practice their own religion or lack thereof. It does not bind them to the ideals and practices of Christianity.
Since the beginning of Trump’s presidency, this has been a controversial topic. In her article “New, President, New Congress, New Challenges: What to Expect for Church-State Separation in 2017-And Beyond,” journalist Rokia Hassanein explained her thoughts on the future of church and state separation during Trump’s 4 years in office. Hassanein stated, “Regardless of whether or not Trump was merely playing the role of a devout Christian to stock up on votes, one thing to know for sure is that the Religious Right is expecting a lot from him in return—and he’s already hard at work on returning the favor.”
Hassanein is right. On May 4, 2017, President Trump signed an order allowing churches to engage in political activity more frequently, seeking to deliver on a campaign pledge to a community that overwhelmingly backed him in last year’s election. According to Trump, the order removes the financial threat faced by tax-exempt churches from the Internal Revenue Service when pastors speak out on behalf of political candidates.
This order was made as an attempt to repeal the Johnson Amendment. This Amendment is a provision in the U.S. tax code since 1954 that prohibits all non-profits organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. It includes charities, universities, and most importantly to Trump, churches.
Trump said, “For too long the federal government has used the power of the state as a weapon against people of faith, bullying and even punishing Americans for following their religious beliefs.” Meanwhile, the only people in America who are truly ostracized for following their own religious beliefs are non-Christians. Muslims are thought to be terrorists for simply practicing Islam. In fact, those who are Muslim or simply appear to be “Muslim-looking” have been wrongfully removed from planes many times since September 11th. In 2016, Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, a student from the University of California, was removed from a flight after being reported by a fellow passenger for speaking Arabic in a way that “sounded threatening.” This type of discrimination will only worsen as Trump continues to close the gap between church and state separation.
American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony D. Romero questioned the merit of the Trump’s attempted repeal of the Johnson Amendment, “[The] executive order signing was an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome. After careful review of the order’s text, we have determined that the order does not meaningfully alter the ability of religious institutions or individuals to intervene in the political process.”
Though the actual order does not entirely repeal the Johnson Amendment, the threat of church-state separation in Trump’s presidency has been a real issue from the beginning, starting with his choice of Government officials.
Trump appointed Jeff Sessions as Attorney General of the United States which from the beginning, turned a lot of heads. According to Hassanein, “Sessions has attacked the secular government, supports government-erected Ten Commandments displays, backs creationism being taught in public school science classrooms, has called a Muslim ban “biblical” and believes religious views can trump reproductive and LGBTQ rights.” Sessions has made his stance on the separation of church and state quite clear both before and during his time as Attorney General.
Trump himself may not appear as an overly religious man, but his Vice President Pence surely makes up for that. Pence’s views include supporting “conversion therapy” a controversial and discredited practice that claims to change a person’s sexual orientation. This type of therapy has been proven ineffective by mental health professionals. Pence also has made his views on abortion clear by eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood during his time in Indiana as governor.
While these Government officials do not have complete control over the United States, they do hold a great amount of power. Their overtly Christian views certainly have the power to make the lives of those who are non-Christian or do not religiously follow Christian values, much more difficult. Issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and sex education in schools, are already becoming problematic under the Trump Administration.
Barry W. Lynn, former director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said, “Religious freedom is far too valuable for us to lose and far too fragile for us to leave unguarded. Americans United stands at the ready to fight back against any and all of Trump’s dangerous initiatives.”
The freedom of religion and the separation of church and state have been an essential part of every American’s constitutional right since the beginning. With the new presidency, the threat of these freedoms being altered or removed continues to hang heavy over all Americans. We as Americans need to continue to fight for our religious freedoms and fight for the separation of church and state. We cannot continue to allow right-wing extremists into the office. Next time there is an election remember, your vote DOES matter.
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