Barr versus God versus America
October 20th 2019
Thirty years ago, in the days of BBSes, I had a user who argued strongly for the elimination of a separation of church and state. He trotted out the usual arguments: there is no phrase in the Constitution mentioning any “wall of separation” (true) and that the founders were devout Christians who wanted Jesus to be supreme over the government (false). I countered, mentioning the ‘no religious Test’ language (which he had never heard of) and pointing out quotes by the founders that countered and even derided orthodox Christian belief. I pointed to American history, where, while a long way from serene, it remained free in large part of Christian versus Christian strife, a problem that plagued Europe from the 14th century on as Protestantism arose. Outside of the Nativist riots in Philadelphia in the 1840s, and the “Lord’s Prayer” riots in New York in the 1920’s, open fighting amongst religious factions was rare in America.
As the number of instances I cited which he knew nothing of mounted, he began to develop doubts. This was unusual; most proselytizers by then had left in a huff, declaring me an unclean liberal. I pointed out that for people supposedly spreading godly truths, religious authorities sure left a lot out of their narratives.
Then I told him this: that church and the state were two very different things. The Church saw to spiritual needs, and answered to an authority that brooked no dispute. The State saw to secular needs, and in western democracies, at least, was an endlessly malleable tool of the people and conflicting interests. One represented eternal truths. The other represented an infinite range of open answers. One claimed certainty; the other advanced through uncertainty.
Being so diametrically opposed, it was impossible to blend the two without corrupting both. The fluidity of politics undermines the absolutism of the Church: the rigidity of the church undermines the adaptability of politics. And both are susceptible to the temptations of power; politicians would love to have true believer followers; Churches want to extend their power so they have control over people’s lives outside of church.
No, the fellow I was debating with didn’t stop being a Christian or advocating his theology. He did, however, stop being a Dominionist. He understood why there was a wall, and that both Church and State benefited from that wall, and the rest of us from the depredations of a combined Church and State.
There were two things in the news this week that reminded me of that long ago conversation.
First was an extraordinary speech that William Barr gave at Notre Dame. Barr, purported Attorney-General, Opus Dei and Trump Thug blamed “modern secularists” for inflicting a “moral pathology” on America which lead to drug abuse, rising suicide rates and illegitimacy. (All of which are at their worst levels in the so-called ‘Bible Belt’). He went on to claim ‘secularists’ (presumably anyone who is not conservative Catholic) were engaged in “organized destruction” of everything that is good and holy in America, Donald Trump in particular. Yes, he claims Donald Trump is godly.
As if we needed further evidence that mixing church and state degrades both. The nation’s top cop feels that the 96% of Americans who aren’t conservative Catholic are moral scum; he also considers that prime example of moral scum, Donald Trump, to be godly.
The other story to catch my attention was the Pew Poll on religion in America. This isn’t the big decennial poll—that’s five years off. But they do smaller polls of the state of religiosity in America every year, and this years highlighted a growing trend: Christianity is in decline, while ‘no religion’ is on the rise. Twenty two percent of Americans have no religion (roughly a third of whom are either atheist or agnostic) and self-described Christians make up about 70% of the population, down from 78% in 2007. The non-believers crowd was about 16% in 2007. About half of that change occurred since Trump took office.
Largest decline was amongst Evangelical Protestants. While many may be repulsed by their corner’s blind adoration of the vile and amoral Trump, wouldn’t it be more in line for them simply to go to a different branch of Christianity, one that didn’t sell out its principles for an allegiance with Trump? The poll suggests that isn’t what’s happening, because while numbers punish the evangelicals more the the rest, it’s because they are a bigger part of Christianity in America. The percentage of each type of Christianity abandoning their faith is remarkably consistent. Dominionists and Unitarians are both losing members, even though they are very nearly opposites in belief and relation to secular power.
So even as the Catholic Church and the GOP are having fun degrading one another and America, something ELSE is going on.
I suspect that that three decade-old conversation I had is something that has become more and more common around the web, and more and more, true believers are encountering harsh realities that prove their faith is based on belief but not supported by facts; not just the relatively mild element of separation of church and state, but over bible literalism versus the actual world. More and more Christians find themselves uncomfortable with denying that evolution is real, or that climate change is occurring, or that they have a hammerlock on emotional and moral stability. Every day on the web, they encounter items that prove that their beliefs, based supposedly on immutable truths, are false.
My conversation was unusual, as noted, because the guy was willing to listen, and wonder. Others took longer. But now, with such knowledge universally available, and more and more undeniable, people are realizing that theocracy has let them down. And worse, the government of the United States has embraced a toxic form of Christianity to its own ends, making the argument for separation of church and state irrefutable.
Expect this trend to continue. But also expect increasing tides of reactionaryism against this trend. Trouble looms.