18 September, 2020 — Must One Be Christian to Be a US President? Part 2

As an Indian woman who does not adhere to a Judeo-Christian religion and whose cultural context is oriented toward science, self-actualization, and the female creative force, terms such as ‘Lord,’ ‘Father,’ ‘Jesus,’ ‘will,’ ‘obedience,’ and ‘Amen’ are not naturally integrated into my vocabulary or conceptual framework. And so the United States, land of immigrants that proudly espouses freedom of expression and religion as one of its cardinal principles, was an attractive feature. However, having lived and worked in the US for quite a number of years, the separation of church and state, or lack thereof, is still a puzzle to me.

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States constitution was written in protest against the conditions during colonial times, under which the Church of England was established by law in southern states, colonists were required to pay religious taxes, and dissenters were punished for preaching without a license. Adherents of other Christian sects, such as the Quakers, Puritans, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and Presbyterians opposed this religious imposition. So when the European colonists declared their independence from Britain in 1776, they soon afterward incorporated into the constitution several amendments, including the first amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” The intent behind this establishment clause was explained by Thomas Jefferson in a letter he wrote in 1802 to the Danbury Baptist Association to assuage its fears: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ʺmake no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,ʺ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

However, as a non-Christian, non-Jewish person I have difficulty seeing this separation, both in daily life and also in the highest levels of US government. In 1971, the US Supreme Court established the ‘Lemon test’ that comprises three factors identifying whether or not a government practice violates the Establishment Clause: “First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not foster an excessive entanglement with religion.” Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). Specifically with regard to government-sponsored prayer, the US Supreme Court has held it unconstitutional for public schools to lead schoolchildren in prayer (Engel v. Vitale (1962); Abington School District v. Schempp (1963)) and has even extended the prohibition to prayers at graduation ceremonies and football games (Lee v. Weisman (1992); Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000)). However, paradoxically, the US Supreme Court has upheld legislative prayer because it is steeped in history (Marsh v. Chambers (1983); Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014)).

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