Rick Santorum (AP/Charlie Neibergall)

The dangerous myth at the heart of conservative ideology

The right believes the separation of church and state is a modern conceit. It couldn't be further from the truth


Amanda Marcotte
December 9, 2014 9:55PM (UTC)
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet Rick Santorum may be a terrible politician, but when it comes to being a conduit for some of the hoariest, long-standing myths of the right, he’s ol’ reliable. His latest bleatings are of particular interest, because, without meaning to, Santorum managed to articulate one of the biggest lies that has fueled the conservative movement for decades now: The myth that America was “supposed” to be a theocracy, but somehow lost its way.

In a conference call with members of the right-wing Christian organization STAND America, a caller went on a rant about how Democrats are pushing a secret agenda to push “a number of the tenets of The Communist Manifesto,” a book the caller seemed to believe was about “amnesty, the elevation of pornography, homosexuality, gay marriage, voter fraud, open borders, mass self-importation of illegal immigrants and things of that nature.” (Zero of these issues are mentioned in The Communist Manifesto, a book about the role of labor in capitalist societies.)

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Santorum latched onto this old-fashioned red-baiting and said, “The words ‘separation of church and state’ is not in the U.S. Constitution, but it was in the constitution of the former Soviet Union. That’s where it very, very comfortably sat, not in ours.”

This myth--that separation of church and state is a modern invention created by communists/liberals/atheists and shoved down the throats of a Christian America until it forgot its theocratic roots--is a popular one on the right, perhaps the defining myth that created the modern conservative movement. It’s also pure malarkey. Even just reading the first amendment to the Constitution shows that this line is self-serving nonsense dished out by people who wish to believe they are patriots while standing against America’s grand tradition of secularism. The Constitution explicitly prohibits any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” a phrase that is so obviously about the separation of church and state that even the most literal-minded among us can get that.

But even if you are remarkably dim-witted, Thomas Jefferson was happy to spell it out in a letter reassuring the Danbury Baptists that the U.S. government intended to be secular: “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 ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

A look at history tells us two important things that right-wing Christians spend their lives refusing to believe. One, the founders clearly and unmistakably believed, correctly, that freedom of religion is incompatible with state-sponsored religion. Two, many Christians at the time agreed, believing that faith was stronger and more sincere if it is freely chosen instead of compelled by the government.

But it’s more than just wishful thinking that leads modern conservatives to lie to themselves and others about these basic facts. The invocation of “communism” gives the game away, because it was fear of communism, more than any other factor, that allowed theocrats to really gain a toehold in modern America. During the mid-century, anti-communist fever caused many Americans to look for any and every way to distinguish ourselves culturally from the communists and religiosity, because communism is an atheist ideology, seemed like an ideal way.

This is why, for instance, the phrase “under God” wasn’t added to the Pledge of Allegiance,which was written in 1892, until the year 1954, at the height of Cold War paranoia. Indeed, it’s also not a coincidence that the same conservatives who were highly paranoid about communism infiltrating American society at that time also became the backbone of the burgeoning religious right. Communism became such an excellent pretext to push for theocratic government at home that many conservatives have probably forgotten that it really was just a pretext.

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Believing that secularism is a recent invention of liberals--or worse, of secret communists working a very long takeover of the U.S. from the inside--is convenient for conservatives, but the truth of the matter is that secularism is a very long tradition indeed. This isn’t just because the founders said so when they wrote the Constitution, either. As documented by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the belief that school prayer was widely accepted and normal right up until the Supreme Court banned it in 1962 is false. Secularism was baked into the idea of public education right from the beginning, when “Horace Mann, the father of our public school system, championed the elimination of sectarianism from American schools.”

Which isn’t to say there was never any Bible teaching or prayer in schools, of course. Sadly, this country has always been plagued by theocrats who want to use taxpayer dollars to push their religion and they frequently get away with it. Plus, most education prior to the establishment of the public school system was religious in nature, with kids learning to read from Christian texts, and it took awhile to unlearn those habits. But, as FFRF lays out, bans on prayer and Bible readings in schools were the norm by the end of the late 19th century and luminaries like Theodore Roosevelt would often say things like it is “not our business to have the Protestant Bible or the Catholic Vulgate or the Talmud read in these schools.”

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Any honest reading of American history does not suggest a Christian nation that has had secularism forced on it in recent years by liberal forces, but the opposite. Ours is a country that has always been basically secular but has always had to contend with a loud-mouthed minority of theocrats who periodically succeed at using government to push religion until the forces of secularism beat them back again. It’s obvious why conservative Christians would like to believe otherwise. Believing they’re an oppressed group being denied their birthright is a lot more fun than accepting that they are an oppressive group trying to steal basic freedoms from everyone else. But just because they wish it doesn’t make it so.


Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. Her new book, "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself," is out now. She's on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte

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