Church-State Separation and the Ongoing Culture Wars

This week, Louisiana lawmakers have begun debating a bill that would make the Bible the state's official book. The bill passed a House committee, with defenders arguing that the Bible's significance in the state's history merited the designation.

Louisiana lawmakers appear to be doing an end-around on the constitutional ban on designating an official state religion by arguing that making the Bible an official state book is not blurring the lines of church and state. This effort could be replicated in other states, especially where lawmakers have already made attempts to "endorse" Christianity as an official religion. Such efforts mark another turn in the ongoing culture wars.

To put it in context, Louisiana and other states, particularly in the South, have for years embarked a counteroffensive to what some lawmakers view as a "war on Christianity." They blame secularism, LGBT communities and practitioners of other faiths for a breakdown in "traditions" they believe are sanctioned by Christianity. Even public schools have become a battlefront. In Sabine Parish, La., for example, administrators and teachers joined in harassing a Buddhist student and actively promoted Christianity in schools, prompting a lawsuit from the ACLU.

Just a year before, Gov. Bobby Jindal, who converted from Hinduism to Christianity at a young age, signed a bill last year allowing for (Christian) prayer in schools. Ironically, Jindal's own parents continue to be active in supporting the Hindu American community in Louisiana, which, like other religious minority groups, is under constant threat of marginalization.

Louisiana's march toward "Christianizing" seems to be a return to the mid-2000s, when the culture wars were driven by a fear of Others. And it seems to be spreading to other parts of the country as well. I've spoken with education specialists in a number of states who worry that their state's curriculum will be influenced by the same right-wing forces that helped to shape Texas' standards several years ago. At a time when more of our elected representatives represent diverse religious traditions (including three Buddhists, two Muslims, and one Hindu in Congress) and ways of life, groups opposed to change are fighting tooth and nail to uphold a semblance of what they view as "the good old days." What is ironic about these regressive attempts to preserve the status quo is that they fly in the face of America's ideal of religious tolerance. What's more tragic about these attempts to impose Christianity as a state religion is that the framers of the Constitution, impacted by the Church of England's impact over British governance, specifically wanted to keep any religion from being endorsed by a state.

With increasing acceptance of issues such as marriage equality and religious pluralism, policymakers in a number of states -- buoyed by religious activists and media products -- are going to feel like their way of life is under threat, and respond in a way that undermines their own rhetoric on the Constitution.

We can only hope that other lawmakers in these states, along with interfaith activists, can work to slow -- or altogether halt -- this reactionism. For now, however, Louisiana serves as an ominous reminder of the fact that the culture wars, while not as prominent, are still very much part of the public landscape.