Forget the theocracy, North Carolina

"White American Jesus" just isn't as influential as he used to be, no matter what craziness Southern states cook up

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published April 3, 2013 7:57PM (EDT)

                                 (<a href=''>Twin Design</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Twin Design via Shutterstock)

On your knees, North Carolina! On Monday, state lawmakers moved to declare an official state religion. The bill seeks to block any of those pesky federal restrictions laid out in the First Amendment.

As WRAL first reported, the bill is a response to a move by the ACLU last month against the Rowan County Board of Commissioners. The ACLU says the board "has opened 97 percent of its meetings since 2007 with explicitly Christian prayers," a stunning, defiant number. The new bill proposes that "Each state in the union is sovereign and may independently determine how that state may make laws respecting an establishment of religion" and that "The North Carolina General Assembly does not recognize federal court rulings which prohibit and otherwise regulate the State of North Carolina, its public schools or any political subdivisions of the State from making laws respecting an establishment of religion." Shorter: nyah nyah nyah -- you can't make us stop talking to Jesus at government functions.

Conservatives have been trying to weasel God into the government for, oh, ever, and the tension between Christianity and American politics in recent years has made for some frequently absurd moments. It has, however, occasionally also yielded thornier and more ambiguous conflicts. Earlier this year, the Obama administration moved yet again to try to smooth the ruffled feathers of religious-based employers who've balked at having "their rights violated by the mandate" to cover contraception. At the time, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius noted the need for "providing women across the nation with coverage … while respecting religious concerns." And in February, the House overwhelmingly approved using federal aid to rebuild churches, synagogues and other religious buildings damaged by Hurricane Sandy, ignoring, as the New York Times pointed out, plenty of constitutional precedent that has "barred the direct use of tax money to build, repair or maintain buildings devoted to religious services or other religious activities." 

The North Carolina push comes at a time when bozos like Tim Huelskamp, a Republican congressman from Kansas, can still declare their political choices are dictated not by the common good but "the Judeo-Christian model God ordained." Yet the cold hard truth is that white American Jesus just isn't as influential as he used to be. Last month, a University of California, Berkeley, study revealed that one in five Americans have "no religious preference" -- double the number who were undeclared in 1990. And though one third of Americans identify as conservative Protestant, those numbers hardly say, "Let's make a whole damn state officially one big Baptist potluck," now, do they?

And that's why North Carolina's absurd little stunt is so pitiful. It represents a desperate power grab, a huffing and puffing and a "We're still here, Lord!" against the backdrop of a nation that is increasingly less religious, and in particular, less Christian. And regardless of how or even if we Americans worship, we didn't sign up for a theocracy here. This isn't what America – and that even includes North Carolina -- was ever meant to be.

Just last year, Louisiana state Rep. Valarie Hodges, a Republican, supported Gov. Bobby Jindal's voucher program to funnel state funds to religious schools – until she realized religious schools aren't necessarily Christian. She swiftly clarified that "I actually support funding for teaching the fundamentals of America’s Founding Fathers' religion, which is Christianity, in public schools or private schools." It's a sentiment that North Carolina's lawmakers are now trying to seize, despite its utter wrongness.

The Founding Fathers weren't trying to impose religion on America. They were trying to liberate us from religion. It was Thomas Jefferson who declared that "No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever." And it was uber-Founding Father Roger Williams – a minister, in case you forgot – who first helped create the "lively experiment" of separation of church and state upon which the United States was founded. He did so because it was the right thing to do. He did because as a man of God he understood what North Carolina seems to have forgotten -- that "Forced worship stinks in God's nostrils."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Aclu Barack Obama Conservatism First Amendment Kathleen Sebelius North Carolina Religion Religious Freedom