ISIS Beheadings and the American Separation of Church and State

In the aftermath of the brutal ISIS beheadings, a 2013 poll on Americans' attitudes toward separation of church and state is suddenly newsworthy once again.

Results of that poll, conducted in April of 2013 by The Huffington Post and YouGov, an international, internet-based market research firm, appeared in the Post on April 6, 2013.

To the question, "Would you favor or oppose establishing Christianity as the official state religion in your state?" 34 percent said they would favor that proposal, 19 percent were unsure, and only 47 percent said they would oppose such a move. And to the question, "Would you favor or oppose a Constitutional amendment which would make Christianity the official religion of the United States?" 32 percent said they would support such an amendment, 16 percent said they were unsure, and only 52 percent -- a bare majority -- said they would reject such an amendment.

What accounts for such widespread rejection of one of the pillars of American freedom and democracy?

Clearly, an enemy that attacks the United States or beheads its citizens in the name of a major world religion stands at the heart of that transformation -- a point explored later in this essay. But long before 9/11 and the more recent beheadings, other factors have progressively weakened the doctrine of church/state separation over a lengthy period of time.

In the first place, if we place the idea of church/state separation against the broad backdrop of world history, we quickly realize what a radical idea this is. And because it is so radical and so completely out of step with the history of the world, the doctrine of separation of church and state is always vulnerable to attack and demise.

Second, in order to retain such a radical arrangement over the long haul, the American people must understand and appreciate why the Founders implemented that arrangement in the first place. But that is precisely the point at which the doctrine of church/state separation in this country is most vulnerable, for the American people have a very short memory, and the shortness of their memory is rooted in turn in their meager sense of history.

History has never fared well in the United States. Ask almost any American high school or college student to assess the value of history, and most will tell you that they find history irrelevant both to their lives and to the present age in which they live.

Henry Ford summed it up best when he quipped, "History is bunk!"

That quintessential American attitude toward history is rooted in the belief, common at the time of the founding, that the American nation had tapped into timeless truths that transcended all contingencies of history, truths that were rooted in the mind of God and expressed in nature, truths that embraced the way God meant for things to be. This is why Jefferson could speak in the "Declaration" of what he called those "self-evident truths" upon which the Founders would erect this nation.

And because the nation embodied self-evident truths that transcended historical contingencies, many imagined that this nation would eventually enlighten the rest of the world and usher in a final golden age of peace, justice, and democratic self-government.

In this way, Americans rooted their identity in a golden age of the past, defined by "nature and nature's God," and a golden age yet to come. They stood, as it were, with one foot in the dawn of time and the other in the world's evening shadows, and history was, for the most part, simply water under the bridge.

In a nutshell, that is the history of why this nation finds history -- its own and that of others -- entertaining perhaps but essentially irrelevant to anything that really matters, why our collective memory is so incredibly short, and why so many Americans have now forgotten why the Founders believed that the separation of church and state was vital to the success of any free and democratic society. Indeed, this nation's collective amnesia is this nation's Achilles' heel.

If American amnesia is rooted in the nation's earliest years, another trait of far more recent vintage serves to buttress that amnesia: the widespread loss of critical thinking from the public square. And this is the third of the factors that have coalesced in our time to render the doctrine of church/state separation so vulnerable.

I recently watched a special report on NBC Nightly News that presented the worth of a college education solely in economic terms and questioned whether a college degree is worth the investment. That was just one of scores of similar reports that have appeared in recent months in outlets like CNN, Forbes, The Economist, CBS, U.S. News, and others.

Tellingly, I have not read or seen a single report in the popular media that argues for the worth of a college education because it broadens our minds and helps us to grow as critical thinkers in a world where critical thinking is needed more than ever.

Ultimately, America's colleges and universities are to blame for this development since over the past fifty years, they have allowed professional training to erode the honored place of the liberal arts so completely that today most students go to college essentially to learn a trade. As a result, millions of Americans boast college degrees, but many of those same people, while well trained for a given profession, remain essentially uneducated.

The problem that plagues the historic doctrine of church/state separation is, then, at its core, a problem defined by the progressive collapse of the American intellect. The pervasive irrelevance of history in American life has now been buttressed by a public that has largely forgotten how to think. No wonder only 52 percent of the American people would reject an amendment to the Constitution that would make Christianity the official religion of the nation.

Actually, beginning in the 1970s -- and this is the fourth development I wish to consider -- a powerful segment of American Christians -- a group we came to know as the Christian Right -- did, in fact, seek to create an informal Christian establishment in response to the challenges leveled against traditional American values in the 1960s.

Indeed, a broad counter-cultural coalition had launched an assault on a wide array of accepted American values ranging from the Vietnam War to racial and gender inequality to traditional sexual mores and even to the respected place of the Christian religion in American life -- a religion that many in the counter-cultural movement viewed as a tool of oppression.

In response, a coalition of conservative American Christians sought to enshrine those traditional American commitments in the sanctity of the Christian religion -- commitments that included American military dominance abroad and racial inequality at home. In doing so, they perverted the meaning of the Christian religion even as they sought to make their version of the Christian faith a kind of Christian establishment.

All over the South, for example, they established "Christian" schools and academies that perpetuated racial inequality, and in the rest of the nation they sought to elect to every public office, from president of the nation to United States Senators to members of the House of Representatives to the mayor of the smallest city, people who supported the traditional values the counter-cultural movement had attacked. And relying on the work of pseudo-historians like David Barton, they did their best to rewrite American history, claiming that the Founders themselves had sought to create an explicitly Christian nation.

In the end that movement failed, but it severely weakened the viability of the Christian religion even as it weakened the historic doctrine of church/state separation. And both the 9/11 terrorists and ISIS have launched their attacks at the very time when the venerable American doctrine of church/state separation was already in significant trouble.

We can place those attacks in context by recalling that since the nation's birth, the United States has waged war against numerous nations that have defined themselves as Christian nations -- Nazi Germany, for example, or the U.S.S.R., Italy, Mexico, France, Spain, and England. And we have also waged war against nations that represent other world religions -- Japan in World War II, for example, or North Korea during the Korean War, or Vietnam and Cambodia during the Vietnam War.

But never has the United States fought an enemy that (a) claims to represent one of the world's major religions while (b) seeking to destroy competing faiths and that (c) defines itself in such explicitly religious terms as have the Islamic terrorists during the thirteen years that have elapsed since September 11, 2001.

The fact that Islamic terrorists hardly represent traditional, mainstream Islam is largely irrelevant to the point I wish to make. The fact that millions of Americans view these terrorists as the face of the Muslim religion is the important consideration here. And because the number one enemy of the United States -- at least in the minds of many -- rallies around a religious flag, many apparently think they can keep that enemy at bay with a legally mandated Christian establishment.

We saw a similar logic at work when, driven by their fear of Islam, 70 percent of Oklahomans voted in 2010 for a constitutional amendment that would bar Sharia Law from consideration in Oklahoma's courts. A federal judge subsequently struck this measure down as unconstitutional.

We can also discern the "logic" of this sort of thinking in the comment Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson made to Sean Hannity on September 2: "I think you either have to convert [the Islamic terrorists] . . . or kill them. One or the other."

The tragic irony is this -- that in their effort to combat the terrorists, Christians like Robertson have embraced the perspectives of the terrorists they oppose while turning their backs on the principles of the faith they espouse.

And Americans who view a Christian establishment as a meaningful antidote to Islamic terror have already conceded the fight to the people they oppose since they would strip the United States of one of the most important pillars of American freedom.

Richard T. Hughes is the author of Myths America Lives By and Christian America and the Kingdom of God.