“I have wondered why the courts’ assault on self-government in the matter of religion and the schools is treated with such docility, and have concluded that is so because antireligious sanctions appeal to secularist sensibilities,” William F. Buckley Jr. wrote in his Nearer My God. “The counsel against establishing a single religion is well known and universally accepted,” he noted.
The question in America is, Why is it that what has evolved from the establishment clause in the First Amendment goes so much further than merely to affirm separation? We have a series of progressively aggressive decisions that go beyond separation and seem to argue an inchoate incompatibility between church and state. It was as recently as 1952 that a fastidiously liberal Supreme Court justice, William O. Douglas, wrote in a Court opinion, “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” If, forty years later, Robert Bork had given birth to such an ejaculation of fundamentalist imperialism, he would probably have been disbarred.
What is happening is the formal estrangement of religion. This has been done by a series of complicated, not to say incoherent, prohibitions. They include forbidding released time for religious studies, banning any display of simulacra of the scene of Bethlehem on public properties, the prohibition … of any display of the Ten Commandments, and forbidding public money even for secular textbooks in religious schools (though atlases are okay). Oh, there are the exceptions, but one suspects that the survival of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, and of chaplains in Congress, relies on the courts’ conviction that, at the opening of congressional sessions, no one really listens to—let alone is guided by—what the preachers preach.
Now there’s a docility to the executive branch, given unprecedented regulatory power by the legislative, on these matters. Thankfully not by the Green family who run Hobby Lobby, which as of tomorrow is in violation of federal law for not complying with the Department of Health and Human Services abortion-drug, contraception, sterilization mandate, having been thus far granted no temporary relief as forty-some lawsuits make it around the courts.
God help us, indeed. With thanks for the likes of the Greens and Frank O’Brien (who I write about here) – they believe their religious faith (evangelical, Catholic, respectively) means something, something worth fighting for. They are fighting back against the formal and practical, mandated estrangement of religion now.