American politicians have prayed before public gatherings since the Founding Fathers crowded into a stuffy Philadelphia room to crank out the Constitution. The inaugural and emphatically Christian prayer at the First Continental Congress was delivered by an Anglican minister, who overcame objections from the assembled Quakers, Anabaptists and Presbyterians. The prayer united the mostly Christian Founding Fathers, and the rest is history.

Indeed, as U. S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy write in the 5-4 majority opinion in The Town of Greece, NY v. Galloway , “…the rest is history.”

Church Ave and State Street intersect in Knoxville, Tennessee. Credit: Creative Commons/ Wyoming_Jackrabbit

While a strict separation of synagogue and state, mosque and state, Hindu and Buddhist temple and state, and separation of atheists and state and virtually all the other approximately 5000 religions and state has been enacted, on the other hand, church – predominantly Protestant denominations, but also Catholic – and state, have connected virtually seamlessly to the affairs and policies of what we call the United States of America, from the first invasion of Europeans in the 15th century on the Christian Julian to the Christian Gregorian Calendars up to 2014 Anno Domini (short for Anno Domini Nostri Iesu Christi – “In the year of our Lord Jesus Christ”).

In the court case, two local women from Greece, New York filed suit against city officials for approving invocations with primarily overtly Christian content at monthly public sessions held on government property. However, according to Kennedy, “The town of Greece does not violate the First Amendment by opening its meetings with prayer that comports with our tradition, and does not coerce participation by nonadherents.”

Going even further, Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia wrote that even any “subtle pressure” that local citizens might feel would not be enough to ban such prayers. This ruling follows the precedent-setting case thirty years ago in Marsh v. Chambers, upholding Nebraska legislature’s funding of a chaplain who delivered daily prayers.

The court’s majority (Scalia) Law further codifies de facto practices into de jure policies.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing the minority opinion, asserted: “When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another. And that means that even in a partly legislative body, they should not confront government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines.” She argued assertively that: “No one can fairly read the prayers from Greece’s town meetings as anything other than explicitly Christian – constantly and exclusively so. The prayers betray no understanding that the American community is today, as it long has been, a rich mosaic of religious faiths.”

By expressing the majority view asserting tradition as justification, Kennedy steps in the grease tracking and smearing it across the legislative landscape. The high court’s decision is less about protecting religious freedom as it is about maintaining and expanding Christian supremacy and the furtherance of Christian privilege. In reality, the First Amendment’s “non-establishment” of religion clause applies to all faiths except Christian denominations, even though Kennedy asserted that these (Christian) prayers were “meant to lend gravity to the occasion and reflect values long part of the nation’s heritage, that are long-established by Congress and state legislatures.

Though I am disappointed, I am not surprised by the court’s (re)inscription of a Christian religious imposition and imperative in the public square by maintaining a long-standing tradition.

I often hear criticism against nations founded upon an “official” religion, denomination, or sect like England, Ireland, Poland, Italy, Ukraine, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Pakistan, India, and many others across the globe, and how these countries restrict religious freedom to those who fall outside the mainstream religiously. I argue, nonetheless, that we must include the United States on this list.

Alexis de Tocqueville, French political scientist and diplomat, traveled across the United States for nine months between 1831-1832 conducting research for his epic work, Democracy in America. He was astounded to find a certain paradox: on one hand, he observed that the United States promoted itself around the world as a country separating “church and state,” where religious freedom and tolerance were among its defining tenets, but on the other hand, he witnessed that: “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America.”

He answered this apparent contradiction by proposing that in this country with no officially sanctioned governmental religion, denominations were compelled to compete with one another and promote themselves in order to attract and keep parishioners, thereby making religion even stronger. While the government was not technically supporting Christian denominations and churches, per se, religion to Tocqueville should be considered as the first of their political institutions since he observed the enormous influence churches had on the political process.

Though he favored U.S. style democracy, he found its major limitation to be in its stifling of independent thought and independent beliefs. In a country that promoted the notion that the majority rules, this effectively silenced minorities by what Tocqueville termed the “tyranny of the majority.” This is a crucial point because in a democracy, without specific guarantees of minority rights – in this case minority religious rights – there is a danger of religious domination or tyranny over religious minorities and non-believers. The majority, in religious matters, have historically been adherents to mainline Protestant Christian denominations who often imposed their values and standards upon those who believed otherwise.

We witness this in the phrases “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance or “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency and Annuit Coeptis (He [God] (or Providence) has favored our undertakings) on the Great Seal of the United States and printed on the back of the one-dollar bill. These constitute examples of Christian cultural imperialism and Christian hegemony.

Just moments before the opinion in The Town of Greece, NY v. Galloway was announced from the Supreme Court bench, the court began its public session as it has for decades with the marshal citing a traditional statement ending, “God save the United States and this honorable court.”

The First Congress voted to appoint and pay official chaplains shortly after approving language for the First Amendment, and both Houses have maintained the office virtually uninterrupted since then.

“Religious freedom does not mean freedom from religion,” Governor Rick Perry declared at the Texas State Capitol building in Austin before signing HB 308 in 2013, which allows public schools to display scenes and symbols of “traditional winter holidays.”

I take issues with Perry. As residents of this country, we must ensure both freedom of as well as freedom from religion in the public square. While having the guaranteed right to worship in our private lives and spaces, we must ensure that religion stay out of our public spaces, which I believe is characteristically coercive.

The Jewish immigrant and sociologist of Polish and Latvian heritage, Horace Kallen coined and proposed the concept of “cultural pluralism” to challenge the image of the so-called “melting pot,” which he considered inherently undemocratic. Kallen envisioned a United States in the image of a great symphony orchestra, not sounding in unison (the “melting pot” enforced by dominant group hegemony), but rather one in which all the disparate cultures play in harmony and retain their unique and distinctive tones and timbres. He imagined an inclusive model, one that ensures individuals’ and groups’ freedom of as well as freedom from religion as a national goal: freedom to live and practice religion in the private sphere, and freedom from religion in the public realm.

A student enrolled in my Multicultural Foundation in Schools and Society class, however, wrote on his final paper for the course:

“[A]s a Christian I am called to not be tolerant. I am not called to be violent, but am called to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28). When I look through all of the information I have been given in my life…I come to the conclusion that America was founded as a Christian nation…Separation of church and state was created to keep the state out of changing the church, not to keep the church out of the state.”

This student’s response represents the majority of U.S.-Americans who believe that the United States was created as a Christian nation, with 51% agreeing with this view and only 25% disagreeing. The Supreme Court apparently validated this tyrannical perspective this week.

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense). For permission to crosspost or publish, contact warrenblumenfeld@gmail.com.


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