Patricia Nell Warren

Why America Pretends to Separate Church and State

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | August 29, 2009 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Fundie Watch, Marriage Equality, Politics, Politics
Tags: American Atheists, Brian Brown, Church of England, civil marriage equality, DOMA, Equality Now, established religion, Establishment Clause, First Amendment, IRS, NOM, Prop 8, Richard B. Couser, same-sex marriage, tax, tax exempt, U.S. Constitution

The other day, the Washington Post carried a seemingly innocuous little story about Brian Brown, head of NOM, who is now establishing his organization in the nation's capital. The newspaper actually tried to make the point about how "sane" and "reasonable" Brown is, in comparison with "fringey" figures like Pat Robertson and John Hagee. According to the Post, Brown's "sanity with a smile" is making the far-right's marriage message go down more smoothly with the middle-of-the-road American voter, who is also desperately looking for sanity and reason.

To me, the NOM message is a little like that slippery coating on an antidepressant pilll that might otherwise stick in your throat. It's pure political Prozac. The pill slides down smoothly -- but the "treatment" is aimed at acting on America's brain, so that most people will accept religion's growing choke-hold on every aspect of American life.

And what is the psychotropic "pill" that Americans are being given?

NOM's campaign for "traditional marriage" continues to push down our throats the idea that it's okay to permit a long-standing violation of the Constitution's establishment clause. This violation is bigger than just helping the right to manipulate marriage the way they do. It actually gives the clergy special powers and privileges. Today the violation screams to be challenged.

Dark Side of Our History

The fact is -- during and after our nation's formative period, the believers among our founders and national legislators saw to it that religion was quietly cut a deal.

Nothing was overtly granted in the U.S. Constitution, of course. The Constitution was put out there in plain view, making its bold statement in the First Amendment that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." But quietly, ever so quietly, back in the shadows of government, Congress actually did just that. It made laws and regulations that favor religion -- especially through our tax code as it evolved.

Today the United States is noticeably absent from the list of 61 countries that have disestablished an old religion formally. We are on a longer list of countries that are "secular," without an official religion.

But our presence on that "secular" list is a joke. Every day, every year, as conservative Christians tighten their hold over national policy, we are heading closer to a formal re-establishment of religion. The right keeps sending bills into Congress that inch us in that direction. DOMA is certainly one of those pieces of legislation -- but there are others.

Historically, our government's closet establishment of religion went beyond allowing churches and religion-related organizations to be tax-exempt, A special niche was actually carved out for clergy. Not only were they granted the right to visit prisons and keep confessions "confidential," but they were exempted from jury duty. They were subsidized by being able to travel free and claim certain tax breaks. They are even allowed to hold public office, thus creating a conflict of interest.

Last but not least, clergy were made government officials for a day by granting them the power to make a marriage legal by conducting a church nuptial ceremony.

The Danger of Clerical Powers

So what we have today is really a "pretend separation of church and state."

The church powers have owned their comfy niche for over two centuries and now they're greedy to make it bigger. As they clamor for the right to dictate how and why and if all Americans should have the right to marry, without discriminating against a particular group, they are also claiming the right to dictate to us in other areas of our personal lives -- in sex, reproduction, sexual orientation, gender identity, child rearing, education, the arts and other areas of concern.

Now and then, organizations that advocate REAL separation have challenged facets of clergy privilege. For example, American Atheists was involved with a 2002 lawsuit over a 1921 IRS regulation that allows clergy to get a tax break on housing costs. The religious lobby screamed foul over this attack on what they view as a cherished "tradition." The IRS regulation was finally declared to be constitutional, and Congress fell over itself to pass new legislation buttressing the practice.

So it is time for those middle-of-the-road Americans --the ones that the Post is talking about -- to wake up and see what the poison pill of disinformation from the religious right is doing to their thinking.

I am convinced that clergy privilege and legal powers, especially where marriage is concerned, is unconstitutional and should be stopped. The only people who should legalize a marriage are secular officials -- mayors, justices of the peace, etc.

Threat to LGBT Marriage Strategy

Our own demographic is obviously awake to the extreme danger of growing conservative church privilege in American life. Unfortunately we are torn by disagreement about how best to fight it.

Much as I want us to win the state-by-state battles over marriage -- whether in 2010 or 2012, or whatever -- I fear that the religious right will eventually grind us into the ground.

We have agreed to fight with them on the state-to-state battlefield. But they are more numerous than we are. They have more access to massive amounts of money. If we win a state on the legislative front, the right simply organizes a ballot challenge to nix the legislation -- as it did with Prop 8. When we win a court decision, the right call it "judicial activism" and threaten to recall the judge. They can keep us running from local battlefield to local battlefield for decades on end.

Will the torturous California Prop 8 debacle now be repeated in Maine and other states where same-sex marriage is now legal? Probably. And the effort will surely leave the LGBT community financially and emotionally exhausted.

All the while, the Establishment Clause problem is not being addressed. We are trying to trim the monster's toe-nails with nail clippers, when we should really be looking for a sword big enough to cut off its head.

How the Machinery Works

Recently I ran across a book that lays out the religious right's position on Christianity's relationship with U.S. law. It's titled Ministry and the American Legal System, by Richard B. Couser (Fortress Press, 1993).

Couser is an attorney and Yale Law School graduate. Essentially his book is a manual for Protestant clergy and lay people. It aims to help churches deal safely with the machinery of U.S. law -- property ownership, taxation, hiring and firing, who they can discriminate against, funds and trusts, clergy-penitent privilege, etc. But for a non-church person like me, the book is very revealing as to how the religious righters see the vast machinery of state being put to work for their benefit.

Marriage doesn't have a chapter of its own in Couser's book. Instead the author has sandwiched "conducting a marriage" into Chapter 5, which unfolds all the "legal privileges and obligations of clergy." Clergy are precisely defined by federal law so they can claim their tax breaks, conduct marriage ceremonies and interact with various state laws. To claim they're "clergy," a person has to be formally ordained and meet a dozen different criteria.

From that core definition, ministers and priests and rabbis and imams get their power to be a government official during those minutes that they stand there marrying a couple in church.

True, a marriage ceremony in church is subject to the laws of each state, and must be licensed by the state. But here is the most eye-opening statement of Couser:

"In performing marriages, clergy are considered to function as public officers for limited purposes. The concept is a carryover from English law and the notion of established churches. It seems to have been universally accepted and apparently never challenged as a violation of the Establishment Clause. In this particular area, a religious ceremony results in a valid civil marriage that carries rights and responsibilities enforceable by the secular legal system. Performance of the marriage ceremony stands as a universally accepted reminder that 'we are a religious people' and also recalls the time when established churches in America had public functions as arms of the state." the religious right's own admission, they are vulnerable to a well-targeted challenge to the constitutionality of clerical powers. Isn't it time to launch that challenge?

Couser claims that this official power of clergy is "universally accepted." Really? Accepted by whom? It is certainly rejected by the hundreds of thousands of Americans who wed in secular ceremonies in the U.S. According to state statistics, there are more and more civil marriages every year. These people are voting with their feet -- they can't be counted as yes votes in that alleged "universal acceptance."

Nor do all non-religious people in the U.S. agree with the righters that "we are a religious people."

Europe Shows the Way

Europeans are way clearer about the evils of state religion. After all, Europeans fought a series of long and horrible wars over religion. During the revolutions that jarred Europe between 1500 and 1920, enormous hatred of churchly privilege and abuse was expressed by long-suffering peoples and minorities.

Today some countries in western Europe, including France, Germany, Italy and Netherlands, recognize only civil marriage as legal. So, on the big day, you go to city hall and get married. The secular ceremony is what makes your marriage legal. Then, if your personal choice is to have a marriage ceremony in the Catholic Church, or the German Lutheran Church, or whatever faith you follow, you can go on to your church and do that. But the church ceremony confers no legality. Why? Because the clergy have been stripped of secular powers.

For sure, American religious righters will have a tantrum if anybody tries to take away their plethora of pet privileges.

But Couser notes (in that quote above) that U.S. marriage practice is a carry-over from English law. Long after the U.S. went through motions of separation of church and state, England clung stubbornly to established religion and church-controlled marriage. Well into the 1800s, English marriage law mandated that no marriage was legal without a ceremony in the Anglican Church. Grudging exceptions were granted to Quakers and Jews, whose marriages in their own forums were recognized as legal. Not till 1863 did Britain finally allow civil marriage for those who wanted it! But it preserved the custom of granting official powers to clergy. To this day, England still has a state religion, Anglicanism, and the church continues to occupy a position of enormous privilege, political power and wealth -- to the great irritation of those English who would like to see religion disestablished in their country.

But why should the United States stay slavishly chained to the example of English law? Especially after we fought a revolution to be independent from England?

So "sanity with a smile" is really "insanity with a leer." Our own legal eagles need to be looking for the right case to put on a track to the Supreme Court. We will need to make common cause with all those non-LGBT groups who share our concerns about the Establishment Clause.

I also hope that Congress will get up the courage to stop pandering to religion so pathetically.

Once the monster's head has been cut off, there might be a better chance for same-sex marriage to be legalized -- and to be protected from counterattacks -- in all 50 states.

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Thank you!! America's Theocratic-Sickness is at the heart of our civil rights struggle here. I also appreciate the depth of your article; it's worth re-reading a few times.

State-by-state makes me sick.

Trying to out-spend wealthy, Religious Empires makes me sick.

Being taxed my whole life as a SUB-american, and then learning about all of the suffering, financial ruin, homelessness, etc. Queers have experiened (including myself) that is essentially due to religious tyranny - TAX FREE....Now that makes me ready for war!!

I truly believe in peace and non-violence. BUT, when NO ONE defends us - NO ONE - what shall we do?

Here, here Patricia. Well said, well done!!!

I have often felt that the legal stand we have in our favor is the separation of church and state. And I have often wondered when our community would grow a pair and fight the fight we can win on principle of separation of church and state.

We can scare the beJesus out of the christain right wing-nuts by going after their 501c3 status on the separation of church and state.

Where is the ACLU on this issue? Where is all of the other LGTB organizations like EQCA on this leading the way.

Awesome article outdid yourself on this one my sweet friend. Lets hope others pick up the mantle and yell to high heaven/hell that we are mad as hell and we aren't going to take it any longer.

Yes, John you are right...we have been treated as Sub-humans and we need to fight this as a war and go after taxation without representation.

Awesome Patricia...many thanks.

Organized Christian religion has in many cases been hijacked by various groups as means to achieve their own agendas. Hate in the name of religion is never justified.The United States of America was founded on the principles of freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. Christianity is about love and acceptance of everyone. One should always ask the question: "What would Jesus do?". The actions of of many so called Christian groups are certainty not what Jesus
would do.

Randall Reynolds | August 29, 2009 10:43 PM

Wonderful article! I absorbed every word.

If you want to read a nice take down of WAPO's piece. This is from Michael Cole, in HRC Backstory.

Beginning with: "There’s a lot to unravel in today’s Washington Post profile (”Opposing Gay Unions With Sanity & a Smile”) of National Organization for Marriage head Brian Brown. Overall the piece is a terribly one-sided, myopic view of a man and an organization who have made it their life’s work to deny loving, committed couples the same rights and responsibilities that they enjoy themselves. ...
and ending with:
"Aside from the irresponsible journalism, at least this piece is a reminder that organizations like NOM are out there and are committed to ensuring that same-sex couples remain second-class. Their fingerprints were all over the passage of Prop 8 in California; they’ve begun running ads in state legislative races in Iowa; and they’re the driving force behind a repeal of Maine’s equal marriage law. They’re ramping up and so must we."

BUT... PNW is still so correct in that we must be dilligent about separation of Church and State.

Sent out to multiple state activist groups...with advice to send on to lawyers.

At. lease we know that NOM is being taken before the Maine Ethics Commission for attempting to shield donor names in the NO on 1 Campaign... (They call it Stand for Marriage..) where over 90% of their funding is coming from out of state, e.g. from Mormon and Catholic CHURCHES!!

Here is link to article:

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | August 30, 2009 2:58 AM

hanks Patricia. That was very well researched and presented.

I was most interested in your comments on same sex marriage, which rightists like the Clintons continue to refer to as 'gay' marriage, as if only gay men wanted to get married.

Marriage is a major financial fallback when ministers, mullahs, grand gazebos, priests and rabbis get caught sexually abusing children or with their mouth stuffed with a hustler. Fear of losing that steady stream of money and an arrogant contempt for us because we question their ‘authority’ are two of the reasons they oppose SSM equality.

However, I think the biggest reason they center their attack on same sex marriage is because they’re paid to. Politicians using the bribery scheme cleverly described as the "White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships" use federal funds to bribe pulpit pimps. It’s as old as the hills – money for votes. The ‘faith based’ scheme was the unholy love child of Hillary Clinton and Rick Santorum who authored and cosponsored it in Congress. The scheme, elaborated by Karl Rove, was wildly successful as a wedge issue, re-electing an unpopular Harding clone in 2004 and while extending Clintons DOMA to some 40 states.

Now it's being used to by Josh Dubois who got the post as a reward for bringing in the sheaves for Obama, organizing a significant shift of catholic, southern baptist, mormon and other cultists away from the Republicans.

1. We have to fight for an end to the tax exempt status for all the cults.
2. We have to push to close cult schools and reopen them as secular institutions to prevent the spread of this disease.
3. That’s especially true of the snake pits where they torture and sexually abuse GLBT children to cure them of their genetic birthright.
4. We should push for the jailing or deportation of all clerics who interfere in civil life, including political life.
5. In general we should be for steps to isolate the cults, especially from children vulnerable to abuse and to dry up their incomes

Some people aren't even pretending. Billboards are popping up all over the place in my area (Tampa Bay FL) from this organization:

Bill, your comments are cogent, as always. If I were writing a book here, I would have a whole chapter to list all the ways in which religion is favored by government -- especially Christian religion. Thanks for mentioning the faith-based scheme. Hillary Clinton, especially, is more closely allied with the religious right than many of us believe, according to Jeff Sharlett, author of THE FAMILY.

Unfortunately, this kind of funding stream (from government to churches) is nothing new. From our nation's earlier times, this kind of thing has been going on. In the earliest states, ministers were on the state payroll, and it was seen to be in government's interest (as with the Northwest Ordinance, when territories outside the 13 states began to come into the union)when churches established schools in new areas. This is what I mean when I say that these violations of the Establishment Clause have been going on for a long time -- and Congress (which is charged by the Constitution with the duty to defend the Establishment Clause) has been a major perpetrator of the abuses.

Yes, the U.S. tax codes should be amended to shut off state support of religion. And they should also be ENFORCED. In Couser's chapter discussing taxation, he lays it out about what churches can and can't do -- and it is very clear, FROM HIS OWN ANALYSIS, that many churches and religious organizations are in flagrant violation, and have been since the '80s, which is when the religious right really got going. The tax code prohibits them from directly endorsing candidates or legislation (and ministers can't do this from the pulpit) if they are to retain their tax-exempt status -- yet many of them do this, and are never prosecuted.

Going down your list of solutions, I agree with you 100 percent about #1.

Re #2, I do disagree with you about schools. If the U.S. is to truly be a bastion of liberty of thought, then we have to let the church people have their private schools. But the deal has to be, that those religions must assume all the costs of running them. They should not get a penny of government support. So I'm opposed to vouchers, because those are yet another government sop to religion. Vouchers were invented to help low-income families send their kids to church-run schools, which tend to have high tuitions. But in my opinion, churches should have their own scholarship system, funded by themselves, to aid these low-income families.

Both private church schools and public schools are part of the evolving scene in the U.S. -- and the problem is that the churches want to have it all -- to run their own schools, but also to take over and control the public schools. Religions should be content to maintain their own systems (Catholic parochial schools, Jewish schools, Baptist colleges, Muslim schools, etc.), and let the public schools be secular.

The idea of a public/secular school was a product of the post-Revolutionary atmosphere in Europe, after the Catholic Church's monopoly of education systems began to be broken. I believe the first secular schools were set up in France. The French Revolutionary idea was imported into the U.S. and took root in the early 1800s, and from that point on, the churches have never ceased to rant against public schools because from the very beginning the latter were teaching "liberal agenda" things that the churches didn't want to see taught.

Re #3 -- I have long been concerned about the private boot camps, many of which are run by churches. I started hearing about them when I was an education commissioner in L.A. Not only do they put LGBT kids through the wringer, but straight kids as well. They deal with kids who are runaways, who are deemed "wayward" or "disobedient," or out of stop with church teachings on sex, drugs, alcohol, etc. In an awful kind of way, they are an "arm" of the private church-school system, because they exist to force a child to conform to a given church's idea of personal discipline and adherence to doctrine.

Unfortunately parents do have the legal right to put their minor children into these institutions. But they are run like prison facilities, with harsh controls and discipline -- including many of them are locked, which amounts to false imprisonment. Often they are located in remote rural areas, to minimize the chances that their MO will be scrutinized by anybody. Every year there are reports of children dying in these boot camps because of abuses.

Churches may have a legitimate arguments for wanting to run their own "child rescue" networks. But I think it is wrong of our country to allow these institutions to flourish unregulated. These institutions should be made to bear close government scrutiny, just as private schools are. There should be strict standards to protect the children from abuses, and the boot camps should be open to public inspection. The people who run them should be vigorously prosecuted for abusing children in any way.

This need for oversight touches on your #5. Our government is very quick to have Children's Services investigate parents who abuse in any way, and to remove children from these homes. We should be even more vigilant about these religious boot camps.

Re #4 -- This is an interesting point. Countries that recognize only civil marriage do punish clergy who interfere with that process in any way -- for instance, who insist on conducting the church service before the civil ceremony. The U.S. already has a criminal-code category for "interfering," as in interfering with a police investigation, or interfering with an election. This is something I'm going to look into.

But it's also a delicate point. First of all, to where would you deport a born American citizen? (Are you thinking of the Alien & Sedition Act?)

Second of all, if you're going to allow free speech, you have to allow clergy to express their opinions freely to a reasonable degree.

But clergy who openly advocate breaking the law --as they do when they openly approve the killing abortion doctors or LGBT people or public officials they disapprove of -- have definitely crossed a line that should make them prosecutable. The nut-case pastor Steven Anderson, for instance, who has been in the news recently for advocating the murder of gays, should definitely be prosecuted.

The offense is greater because of the regard that people have for them as authority figures. Legally this is probably "inciting," though in some cases, loud-mouth clergy statements might fall into the category of what federal law calls "sedition." The U.S.A. doesn't prosecute for sedition any more. Given the violence of expression that is now coming from the "tea bag" front, concern about sedition should be revived.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | August 30, 2009 4:43 PM

Good points. Your posts always lead to the best discussions.

We'll just have to disagree about the schools. As a socialist and a militant atheist I think cult schools are incubators of right wing politics and reaction.

We can live without them.

I attended a catholic high school for a couple of years and the nuns used to tell us what fine fellows Franco and Salazar (the Portuguese fascist dictator) were. Beyond politics cult schools and home schooling are centers of anti-scientific miseducation. Science is no longer an option as our long abused environment begins to turn on us. The guidance and uses of science are going to key for the survival of kids now entering kindergarten. Serious experts believe the crunch will begin in about 20 years, not in a couple of centuries.

“A new report highlights the biggest problems now facing the world. It warns that the environmental crisis is deepening every year. Human consumption is now 30% larger than nature’s capacity to regenerate. By 2015 the number of people suffering climate-related disasters could mushroom to more than 375 million a year. By 2030 as many as 660 million people could be affected, with economic losses rising to $340 billion a year. There are currently 15 wars taking place and the report predicts that 3 billion people will have no access to water by 2025.”

I used to think that reports like that were alarmist, but no longer. Questions about the environment and ecology, about green manufacturing, housing, energy creation and conservation can only be informed by science, not people who think “The Exorcist was a documentary. If we're not careful Mad Max could turn out to be a training film for the children of the next couple of generations.

In terms of the schools where torture and sex abuse are used churn out ex-gay children, I think we should go after them and the demented parents who sentence their children to abuse. I think our legal entities – Lambda, NCLR and the ACLU – are missing the boat by not having a clear and well publicized policy of offering LGBT youth the opportunity to sue for emancipation from bigoted and abusive parents. Those are our children and we have to protect them.

Cults are one part entertainment industry and three parts right wing politics. IMO they have no ‘right’ to foment violence through hate speech. I’m not particularly concerned about their debates over the number of angels who can perch on a quill pen but I think they should be jailed when they kill someone, even if it is secondhand.

I should have said deport foreign born priests, mullahs and rabbis who promote anti-GLBT violence and otherwise interfere in civil affairs. The National catholic Reporter say that “7,000 international priests have worked in the United States since 1985... As a force they constitute about 16 percent of all the priests serving across the nation. Moreover 27 percent of all priests being ordained in America today are foreign-born.” The home grown variety can be jailed for appropritate sentences depending on whether they interfere with politics or altar boys.

Bill, you'd have a tough time taking the legal right to set up private schools away from churches and still maintaining some semblance of democracy in our country.

U.S. law makes parents responsible for their children's education. Ever since the 19th century, U.S. laws require that all children under 18 should attend school. If parents don't approve of the local public schools for some reason, they're allowed to send their kids to private schools. If there are no private schools to the parents' liking, they're allowed to home-school their kids...but home-schooling has to take place under the oversight of the local school district. I've known liberals who home-schooled their kids because they disliked a conservative, racist attitude in their local public schools -- but by far the biggest trend in home-schooling today comes from conservative parents.

Much as I despise some of the stuff that conservative parents teach their children, I don't think you can take away their right to determine how their children will be educated -- at least, until age 18.

You may argue that many of their pet ideas are injurious to society as a whole, and I agree with you 100 percent on that. And the line has to be drawn at inciting children to violence against others through adult hate speech. But governments that started dictating what children could and couldn't learn can be found on both the fascist and communist/socialist sides of the history spectrum, and sooner or later many of them became dictatorships. So I would be leery of going that route.

I do agree with you 100 percent about emancipation of minors. California has had a good state-approved program called GLASS (Gay Lesbian Adolescent Social Services), through which LGBT minors can go to court and get out from under the custody of abusive parents. GLASS holds their custody till they're 18. Meanwhile they live in supervised group homes in Los Angeles, from which they are required to attend public school. When I was doing volunteer teaching in LAUSD, several of my students were GLASS kids.

Unfortunately such a program can't operate independently of state educational authorities. So ultraconservatism in other states stands in the way of GLASS-type programs being set up and approved in the 49 other states.

Perhaps a national ACLU-type organization could be launched that would be a clearinghouse for abused kids from all states, and represent them legally in local courts. But the problem is, no court will emancipate a minor unless that kid can demonstrate that he or she can be self-starting, self-supporting and has a safe place to live. So how will this national organization be able to satisfy a local court on all these local-based requirements? And this organization would have to find local foster homes for its clients. Each case would become very labor-intensive and expensive. The organization would have to be massively well-funded.

Most importantly, that organization would have to do massive promotion so that kids everywhere would know it exists. Most abused LGBT minors have no idea that they have the legal right to seek emancipation.

Sad to say, GLASS itself has struggled with funding problems, especially in recent years with California cutbacks.

Footnote emancipation:

Below is a recent list of local centers across the U.S. that provide some sort of safe place and counseling for LGBT youth. Some, but not all, are shelters. Most, if not all, provide counseling, so presumably they would tell an abused kid about his or her option to seek emancipation from abusive parents. Laws and rules governing emancipation can vary from state to state.

GLASS, which is located in L.A., is on that list, compete with contact information:

Also, on re-reading my comment above, I see that I didn't distinguish clearly between emancipation and an agency like GLASS that can assume custody of a minor, or in some cases shares custody with a parent or guardian. I'm not sure that there is anything quite like GLASS elsewhere.

An emancipated youth is freed of adult custody, and assumes all legal responsibility for his or her own life and welfare. This is why family court judges feel duty-bound to make sure that a minor is fully prepared to do this.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | August 31, 2009 2:19 PM

This is a good example of what discussions ought to be, Patricia. Honest and respectful.

The difference between our approaches lies in the fact that I don't think the US is a democracy in anything but name. I think that it's far more accurate to describe it as an economic and political oligarchy of the rich, mainly the super rich. The Democrats and Republicans are their enforcers and sometimes they’ve been known to get rough with us.

That's been true at least since the betrayal of Reconstruction by the Republicans followed immediatly by the Democrats reimposition of state slavery via draconian enforcement of Jim Crow well over a hundred years ago.

With that perspective I feel free to propose solutions outside the box. The goal of folks serious about fundamental change should be to craft a cutting edge program that's at once reasonable and unattainable within the system. Some are socialist, some spring from the nationalist sentiments of minority communities, some are feminist or basic trade union demands. Many, like efforts to suppress cult interference in civil life, are leftovers from the time the Constitution was written.

What they all have in common is that people need these kinds of changes and will fight for them.

Right you are about honesty and respect, Bill. The only way to go. If only some of the town halls were being run this way.

You make some good points about where we're at -- though I would point out that there are shadings of democracy that we should take into account.

We do agree that the country is now in a very dangerous moment. What scares me is whether or not there are enough of those "fair-minded middle-of-the-road" Americans who are willing to fight to keep the cults from taking over.

As in any society where the tipping point is being reached, it is always who is in control of the armed forces that has the advantage. In Spain in the 1930s, for example, the majority of the people wanted a leftist/liberal government that de-fanged the Catholic Church -- but the Civil War was precipitated, and won, by the pro-church Falangists because they controlled the army.

This is one of the biggest dangers we face today -- the power of conservative Christian clergy to openly infilitrate and proselytized the troops. They've been doing this for years and reportedly have made huge inroads. I.e. yet another example of clerical powers that should be declared unconstitutional and prohibited.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | August 31, 2009 8:30 PM

When I was just entering the movement I got a wonderful opportunity to talk to a couple of POUMista veteranos. (Partido Obrero Unificación Marxista – the left party in the Republic, dominant in Catalonia.) The key difference between here and Spain in ’36-’39 is that the influence of the Stalinists, popularly described on the left as the 'syphilis of the workers movement', will be negligible here. None of the reformist groups in the US have the clout, smarts or experience that Stalinists had at betraying anyone and everyone to the interests of the stalinized USSR.

Secondly the falangist army was largely composed of colonial North African troops who hated Spanish civilians and were given carte blanche by their officers to loot and kill to their hearts content. One similarity though is the influence of the christer right in the armed forces. They’re not exactly fascists but it wouldn’t take much of a nudge for many of them to get there. That’s mainly true of the officer corps and NCO lifers. And we shouldn’t forget corporate paramilitary mercenaries. They constitute a huge force who have no devotion to constitutional niceties.

I’ve seen no proof that that mentality is widespread, much less dominant, among the ‘lower’ ranks.

Among the ground forces antiwar sentiment is growing side by side with an unwillingness to be sacrificed for Chevron. That is very likely a key reason they were pulled out of combat in Iraq.

Southern Command figures that sunni and shiite militias can be counted on to successfully kill themselves on a large enough scale so that no one will notice what’s happening to the oil. But if it gets out of hand there or in Afghanistan, to say nothing of Iran or Pakistan they’ll be faced with the choice of a huge and very dangerous defeat in the region or the draft. They want to avoid the draft at all costs. The US armed forces in Vietnam were so close to large scale mutinies that it made the Pentagon pee its collective pants. The Potomac must have run yellow.

I doubt a draft army in the US would act like the colonial falangist troops in Spain.

As to the officer corps, I agree. The oath of office should be rewritten to forbid cult propaganda while in the service of the state. On or off base, in or out of Congress and the White House and on of off duty. Oh, and thye should lose the bible. People should take the oath holding a copy of the Constitution, not a primitive comic book.

Of course, comparing two historical periods is always comparing apples and oranges, to some degree.

But you're generalizing a bit about the Nationalist army. Its composition was more motley than that. The Army of Africa included Spanish nationals and Spanish Foreign Legion as well as the Moroccan regulares. While the Army of Africa columns did occupy large areas of Spain, the Nationalist army overall was padded out with conscripts from the local regions, as well as Carlist militias, Italian and German troops sent by Hitler and Mussolini, volunteers from Portugal, Romania, some of the Civil Guard, even some Irish Blueshirts.

And the Moroccan troops weren't the only ones who committed atrocities. Such were the hatreds of Spaniard for Spaniard, and all because of religious belief, as well as cultural and ethnic divisiveness between different parts of Spain.

When I lived in Spain in the 1960s, this was something that people still talked about painfully. "Our civil war was when half the country killed the other half."

But apples and oranges aside, I still make my point about the importance of having the army on your side. Ultimately the Nationalists outnumbered the Republicans, especially with the help of German air power and tanks.

In the U.S. today, don't underestimate the influence of right-wing sermonizing to the troops -- reports that I've seen indicate that it has infiltrated the ranks of non-coms and enlisted men as well as the officer corps.

There definitely is anti-war sentiment developing, as there was in our troops in Vietnam, and in a civil-war situation, there would likely be some troops who would refuse to fight Americans. But there are always those who will shoot when and whom they're ordered to. Think of the awful effects of post-millennial war technology if it is turned on American civilians -- technology that needs only a few obedient soldiers to put it into effect.

True enough. Comparisons are difficult. And it’s also true that right wing christers in the military, especially the groups I mentioned - lifers, the officer corps and mercenaries like Blackwater - could be counted on to squeeze the trigger.

We know that from our experiences in the thirties when rightists wooed the military. The 'Business Plot' included figures like Prescott Bush, daddy and granddaddy of George the First and Second, ‘discussed’ a putsch against FDR and his cabinet for making concessions to unions. (U.S. House of Representatives, Special Committee on Un-American Activities, Public Statement, 73rd Congress, 2nd session, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1934 and U.S. House of Representatives, Special Committee on Un-American Activities, Investigation of Nazi Propaganda Activities and Investigation of Certain Other Propaganda Activities, Hearings 73-D.C.-6, Part 1, 73rd Congress, 2nd session, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1935).

Our primary weapon is always going to be political with our ‘military’ options centered on self defense. The Spanish Republic, although it was defended by the left, easily fell because it never adopted socialist property relations and never moved to decisively suppress the catholic cult. Every time the left subsumes itself to the authority of reformist or capitalist governments it fails miserably. (Contrast what happened in Cuba, which nationalized American colonial assets to the failure in Nicaragua and the dangers that face radicals like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Lula in Brazil and Evo Morales in Bolivia.)

The aftermath of failure was made disastrously clear in Spain and even more so in Germany where reformists got on the ‘Only Hindenburg can save us from Hitler” bandwagon (Hindenburg appointed Hitler Chancellor and the reformists ended up in Dachau) and the Stalinists abstained from the fight. Their mistakes led to the elimination of the German SPD and KPD, the largest left parties in the world, a huge shift in the balance of forces internationally and a predictable drift towards a new war between competing empires that consumed 60 million lives. The Stalinists paid for their idiocies: they were the first people arrested and murdered by the SS and large chunks of the ones who ‘escaped’ to the USSR where they were murdered by the NKVD. Call it what you will, but “History” or karma or whatever sometimes exacts a high price for high crimes.

Our political weapons are formidable. Although it’s now being battered by Obama and his union busters in Congress , the AFL-CIO has begun to reverse it’s losses by organizing immigrant and imported workers and fighting back against unremitting attacks. They’re our first line of defense and GLBT folks should get into or create union jobs and get in on the ground floor of building the union controlled Labor Party. They offer the only real solutions to dependence on the parties of the rich and their reformist camp followers.

In addition Iraq and Afghanistan are unwinnable, and if the fighting spreads to Iran and Pakistan defeat for the US will swiftly follow unless they use nukes. Unemployment and the crushing burden of deficits will continue to take their toll as the faked ‘good news’ from Wall Street proves to be as worthless as one of der Gubernators warrants to pay (anyone can have a good year when Obama gives them a few trillion to play with).

All the groups and issues that are in play will deepen the radicalization. The center will wither as the right and left grow. This time around we’ll have a clearer shot at winning because of the demise of the stalinized and misnamed communist parties. The only group they have any real influence in is the Democrat Party, which they ‘entered’ decades ago and where they’re buried. However it’s anyone’s guess what their influence is and it’d be very difficult to quantify. They’ve moved to the right along with the Democrats as a whole.

And finally, the fact that parts of the military are infested by christian rightists just means we have to work harder to build a left independent of the Democrats: it’s our only means of defense.

I agree with you 100 percent about what a disaster it would be for us to get involved in other wars. I also agree about the need to shore up labor power.

But good luck with long as big business continues keeps on trying to hire non-union labor and move to other countries. (This morning the big news is that Boeing might move to China. I'd think it should be illegal for a U.S. defense contractor to move to a country that might be our enemy someday. But what do I know? I'm just a dumb voter.) As long as the outsourcing trend continues, the labor vote is as much of a dead dodo bird as what we used to call "the farm vote."

To build up union power, the U.S. needs to build up industries for them to work in. Where are these industries? Our country has stupidly dismantled, or outsourced, many of the major heavy and light industries we ever had. Even the book industry, where I've spent my life, has largely moved out of the country! Most of the big U.S. trade and textbook publishers are now owned by foreign corporations, and a great deal of printing is done in Asia.

Can we call this exodus of American industry what it is... national suicide?

One huge industry that is screaming to be re-started is the job of repairing and rebuilding our infrastructure. All over the country, it is aging disastrously, putting large areas and large populations at risk because of the imminent failure of levees, dams, power grids, bridges, water-supply systems, etc. There are millions of new jobs that could be created for this task, and Obama has actually started this process, though I don't think he's doing nearly enough.

Last but not least -- the old festering human issue of agricultural labor, and how these people (who are mostly immigrants and undocumenteds) are treated by agribusiness, has to be finally dealt with. Farm workers who are citizens and can hope for a better life if they vote for a reform party will become a powerful voting bloc.

These are some major problems that a Labor Party will have to solve.

Back to the subject of state religion and the Spanish Republic. I'm curious to know what you would have done to "decisively suppress the catholic cult." In 1931 the Republic dis-established the Catholic Church, ended its control of education, ended its power to censor, legalized divorce, and expelled the Jesuits. Prime Minister Azana said he didn't want to persecute the Church -- he just wanted a level playing field for all religions, the way he believed it was being done in the U.S.

So what else do you think the Republic should have done?

Hi again.

I think that what Obama's proposing for infrastucture repair is a spit in the ocean. If you get a chance check out the NY
Times article on the 2009 report of the

"American Society of Civil Engineers, which assigned an overall D grade to the nation’s infrastructure and estimated that it would take a $2.2 trillion investment from all levels of government over the next five years to bring it into a state of good repair.
And it will take additional trillions to green transportation, manufacturing and agri-business.

These are some major problems that a Labor Party will have to solve.

I think the point is that only a Labor Party can solve them and that’s what guarantees that sooner or later the AFL-CIO will unleash the Labor Party. They created it and fund and they have to let it do it’s job, which is to make the Democrat Party the Whig Party.

Most needful changes, from immediate to basic transformations in property relations can only come from a left third party. They cannot come from the Democrats or Republicans. In response to the war and economic crises the Republicans are running to the right and always attack the solutions we need and the Democrats are in lockstep with that rightward movement and always betray the solutions we need. The best we can get from them are a few grudging, half assed reforms, and even those have to be fought for tooth and nail.

It’s a bit early to begin printing invitations to funeral rites for unions. Unions are beginning to recover and getting more militant. They don’t have much choice.

”So what else do you think the Republic should have done? I'm curious to know what you would have done to "decisively suppress the catholic cult."

What the French, Russians, POUMistas, Mexicans, Turks and others did to one extent or another. Jail, expel, deport and execute people in groups like Opus Dei and the muslim Brotherhood. Put the fear of the godless in them. Forbid them any access to children and to civic society. Confiscate their wealth and lands to pay for social programs, implement land reform and rehabilitate their victims. Organize a comprehensive anti-clerical, atheist educational program in schools and the media. Expose their connections with the right. Etc. It’s all pretty standard stuff and how severe we are depends on how strong they are.

But it can only be done by a socialist state that can mobilize massive support for those measures. The firmest measures are only necessary in places like Iran, Palestine (on both sides of the Wall), Poland, India, and the US where bishops, great spotted gazebos and ayatollahs exercise a powerful influence.

Fascism and the christer cults have always been bedmates. Hitler and Mussolini signed concordats with the Vatican. The falangists were as fiercely catholic as they were murderers of unionists, leftists, feminists, gays, intellectuals, etc. The biggest difference they had with Hitler is their belief that the catholic cult, not the state, was the ‘proper’ organ to suppress Jews. A party or a state that wants to win has to break those connections.

Oops, typo. In #3, it should be "out of step," not "out of stop."

Patricia, I stand in complete agreement with you that many of the ills befalling our country today are either a direct result of meddling by our religions, or result from violations of existing regulations governing how churches are to conduct their "business."

I completely agree there is a move to further "theocratize" Government at every level, and the fight will get more vicious before it gets better. We must be ever vigilant to the march of those oh so persecuted Christians on the religious right.

I also agree it would be better if the "official" marriage process were made into the civil process it really is, but I do not believe there is a case to be made for gay marriage based on the Establishment Clause. The obvious opposing argument would be that Marriage is a State institution, and available without any religious inference if one so chooses. Absent any religious consideration, the laws/amendments, etc. still limit marriage to people of the opposite sex. The point is, even if we take away the right of ministers, rabbis, etc. to act on behalf of the state in performing marriages, it does not open the door to gay marriage on any state or national level. There is no doubt religious belief is the potent motivating force behind the laws that prevent us from marrying, but the pertinent laws are civil laws, and do not say anything about religion being a part of the restrictions.

To try to make my point more clear. Even if we adopted the practice common in the European countries you mention (go first to the Courthouse, and then to the church if you are so inclined), gay people still won't be able to go to the Courthouse. Winning a "marriage" case which takes marriage out of the realm of religion still won't change those state laws and Constitutions (nor DOMA), that say marriage is between a man and a woman. We have much better standing to come at this particular issue based on the equal protection clause.

Good point. And the litigation about "equal protection" is already happening. But even if we win that case, the the religious right will still argue that LGBT people do not deserve full protection under the law.

So, on the chessboard, you're back to the square where you have to de-fang the power of religion over U.s. law. Because it's religion that says marriage has to be between 1 man and 1 woman.

Thank you for this great post, Patricia.

Although I am not an expert on American history in this area, I am coming to the conclusion that there has never been complete agreement about what "separation of church and state" really means, and the concept has survived by living somewhere in the cracks of all the disagreement that abounds. Unfortunately, the Establishment Clause that we inherited is restricted and incomplete. We ended up with it in its current, relatively weak, form probably because that was the only point that the Constitutional Convention could agree on. (Historians, check me on this point.) Admittedly, we have what separation we do have because the Establishment Clause has been interpreted more broadly than the literal meaning of its words. The incompleteness spawns wiggle-room large enough to swallow a small continent, and in turn forms the foundation for the problems that you, Patricia, cite in your post.

Evangelists are quick to point out that the phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear in any foundational document, and --- what a pity! --- they are correct. In light of this omission, the legal experts don't lead me to believe that everything is crystal-clear to them, either. As we move our lips forming the words of the Establishment Clause, you and I might want to read "Government has no business encouraging any particular religion, or religion in general." But that is not what the words say, they do not go that far. But, we might object, how else can a governance that claims freedom of religion be fair and just? Let us not attempt to illuminate governance with logic, comes the response, we are also discussing matters of faith.

Thus, as you, Patricia, so aptly demonstrate, what we have now is a government that is officially secular, but de facto pro-religion and specifically pro-Christian. Congress stops short of declaring Christianity as the official government-sanctioned religion, while doing almost everything that leads up to that.

To make things worse, Christians now are aggressive and panicy because they hear via media that Islam is the fastest growing religion, both globally and here in the US. The Christian Taliban is afraid of losing ground to what they mistake to be the real Taliban on-shore, even though Islam in America tends to be more tolerant, or at least more careful at forcing its tenets on larger society, than American Christianity. But I think that as a nation, the US will be in a better position to perfect the doctrine of church/state separation once the population reflects a plurality of religions rather than the very one-sided dominance of Christianity, largely fundamentalist, that we have now (which makes a certain amount of political pandering virtually inevitable).

Or, as time unfolds, maybe a perfected doctrine will still fail to emerge. Patricia, you point to Europe as showing the way to secularism. Yet it must be pointed out that in the Western countries, the problems of anti-government Muslim activism, social unrest, and ghettoization on religious grounds are most pronounced in exactly the countries you name, particularly Britain and France, where a large Arab-Muslim influx is causing social tensions. This only shows that even their more complete forms of government secularism are not Utopian victories.

"Why can't we all just get along?" asked Rodney King. Well, Rodney ... it's complicated.

You make a great point. Yes, the problems with interpretation are a big problem. Our founders were not perfect human beings, and they weren't able to see 200 years into the future needs for more clarity on this...and they had to make their own political compromises among themselves in order to get things done.

However, here's an important fact to look at: At the time our founders penned that line "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," it was actually a very radical over-the-top concept for its time.

Back in England, Parliament hadn't been shrinking from making laws about religion. In fact, Parliament had been locked in a long death struggle with the crown over which would control English policy about religion. By the early 1700s, Parliament, which represented the establishment of Anglicanism and growing Protestantism in the country, got the upper hand over the Stuart kings, who favored religious liberty and freedom for dissenters. Result: King James Stuart II was finally run out of the country after he published an edict establishing religious liberty. That was the end of Stuart rule in England. Parliament then brought in the Hanover line of royalty, who were willing to submit to Parliament on keeping the country exclusively Anglican/Protestant.

So the difficulties with interpretation are not limited to the courts -- but also to historical study. If we make an effort today to see what might have been in our founders' minds, liberals can see that the U.S. Establishment Clause was clearly aimed at what our founders considered the overweening support of established religion by English government. Indeed, it's important to discern the quiet sympathies for the Stuart cause, and the Stuart policy on religious freedom, among our founders.

But today's religious right won't see it that way, because their take on 18th-century English history is based on that of the Stuarts' bible-beating enemies.

As an addy to this comment, I did a lengthy article for Gay & Lesbian Review in 2006 about the Stuart input into the formative stages of U.S. government...even a moment when some of our founders briefly considered a constitutional monarchy to be headed by Stuart-king-in-exile Charles III aka Bonnie Prince Charlie. When BPC turned down the offer, our constitutional framers opted for a non-royal chief of state. It's a fascinating -- and deliberately obscured by many historians -- moment in our history, albeit documented in the Senate archives and other places.

Interested readers can find my article online at;col1
It includes a discussion of several prominent male founders and European supporters of our Revolution who were (judging by their letters and other reports) gay.

It's amazing how much fascinating and important information is left out of what I'd call the made-for-TV version of American history. Our nation did not emerge from a neat circle of clear-eyed bible-reading visionaries. Instead it struggled out of a tangled web of viewpoints, differences, old agendas and factions. Prominent among them were the Freemasons, who were probably the most responsible for that commitment in writing that federal government would not legislate religion.

John R. Selig | August 30, 2009 5:02 PM

Kook Aid, Kool Aid, tastes great!

I am so sick of religion and the huge amount of damage it wrecks on so many peoples lives.

Leave me out of it. If I want a cult I will find my own.

Patricia, once again, AMAZING job! You are so comprehensive.

A problem with rhetoric on OUR side is that we constantly attack churches when talking about Marriage Equality, which gets us all riled up about Religion and fuels the Far Right's fire when pointing to how much gays and lesbians hate civilization and the family and we want to destroy God.

Except God already recognizes my marriage.

I can pick a denomination--any accept Mormon and MAYBE Southern Baptist (depending on the part of the country) and I can do a little bit of investigation and find a specific church community IN THAT DENOMINATION that I can travel to and have my SAME-SEX MARRIAGE BLESSED with love and support equal to the love and support given to opposite-sex marriage.

Gays don't NEED to make religions recognize their marriages, they already do.

We need to embrace this truth and run with it--regardless of your feelings about religion. There are religious people out there ENDORSING us. We need America to know that. Right now they think we're trying to force churches to change their beliefs. They don't believe that this is really about the CIVIL RIGHTS of marriage. This fact proves it.

I can get 'married' in a church, surrounded by my family and my friends, by an ordained agent of that church (who is also an agent of the state) and yet that same RELIGIOUS MARRIAGE will NOT be recognized by the GOVERNMENT of that state (at least in 43 of 'em).

That's discrimination AGAINST religion too, in a way.

Regardless, I think this MUST become part of our narrative to begin making sense of this. The FAR RIGHT rules the rhetoric now. They're on the attack, we're on the defensive. Let's get them on the defensive for once: "Why do you say this is about RELIGIOUS MARRIAGE when it really isn't? WE GOT RELIGIOUS MARRIAGE already, and we realized a lot of damn good it does without CIVIL RIGHTS!"

That's discrimination AGAINST religion too.

So true! It's discrimination against religion, and individual pastors and churches, who truly do love liberty and respect the liberty of other individuals.

We NEED to start telling the American people this! The FAR RIGHT IS DISCRIMINATING AGAINST CHRISTIANS!!! HA!