Or: Why, religious neutrality is impossible, even in government
“Don’t tell me about no separation of church and state,” he boldly announced…
State is the body. Church is the heart. You take the heart out of the body, the body dies. I can’t separate my belief because I’m an elected official. When I walk, I walk with God. When I talk, I talk with God. When I put policies in place, I put them in with a God-like approach to them. That’s who I am. . . . I am still a child of God and will always be a child of God and I won’t apologize about being a child of God. It is not going to happen.
Sociologists and political experts have lately been trying to warn the American public about words like these. Everywhere, they say, we see the rise of an illiberal, antidemocratic Christian nationalism, something some have called the “single biggest threat” to the American way of life. Given our current context, we would expect declarations about the impossibility of a separation of church and state to come from a right-wing political figure. Indeed, the above statement sounds quite similar to what Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert said last June, lamenting how tired she was “of this separation of church and state junk that’s not in the Constitution.”
As it happens, the quoted oratory comes from a speech delivered by the rather liberal mayor of New York City, Eric Adams. The mayor, moreover, went on to declare, “When we took prayers out of schools, guns came into schools.” This seems a concession from the mayor that Engel v. Vitale—the Supreme Court case which ruled that school-sponsored prayer in public schools violated the Constitution—was a drastic, indeed, deadly error in jurisprudence.
The speech has since caused no little trepidation amongst political commentators and liberal activists. Amanda Tyler of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC) grieved the mayor’s comments, calling them “extremely troubling.” She added, “We should expect from our elected officials to govern without regard to religion and respect the institutional separation of church and state, which ensure religious freedom for everyone.” Articles criticizing Adams appeared at The New York Times, The Washington Post, and MSNBC. The latter described Adams as playing with “holy fire,” animated by “theocratic impulses,” which culminated in “theocratic malaise.”
Adams’s comments brazenly, and with what appears to be sincere conviction, violated the agreed upon talking points of the Democratic Party—hence the furor from within his own ranks. What made the statements especially concerning is that they undermined a political strategy of the left to paint conservative Christians as dangerous “Christian nationalists” (whatever that means). By lacing his language with religious rhetoric, Adams dismantled the pillars of an initiative to make religious folks seem extreme, out of touch, and at odds with the American constitutional order.
This is precisely the concern of Jenifer Rubin at The Washington Post, who placed the mayor’s comments in a parallel stream with Christian nationalism—a term she decried as “a constitutional abomination.” By “constitutional abomination,” Rubin meant that, thanks to Christian nationalism, “women have watched in horror as a partisan Supreme Court turned a sectarian principle (personhood begins at conception) into deprivation of constitutional rights.” She added to this the “silencing [of] LGBTQ voices and banning medical treatment for transgender youths.” Christian nationalists, furthermore, have the horrifying audacity to contend for the “nuclear family” as “crucial to civilization.” Oddly, she never mentioned what you might have expected, namely, January sixth. Instead, she rattled off the dangers of being pro-life, pro-family, and anti-genital mutilation for minors as a three-headed beast known as Christian nationalism—a monster that has ransacked the “American creed.”
Thus, by publicly placing God at the center of his political character and the foundation of his political philosophy, Adams has gone the way of the Christian nationalist. “New Yorkers,” she argued, “certainly didn’t sign up for a mayor like this”—a mayor who would “give aid and comfort to right-wing Christian nationalists on the march, helping their odious effort to redefine America.”
Rubin’s fears about Adams seem strange given the mayor’s record on issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights. After the Dobbs decision, Adams signed legislation to protect abortion rights, and issued the following statement: “The Dobbs decision was about nothing more than controlling people’s bodies, their choices, and their freedoms, but we are not going to leave our sisters or others behind. . . . Abortion is healthcare.” On LGBTQ issues, the mayor condemned the infamous and ill-named “Don’t Say Gay” bill that made its way through Florida in 2022. He argued that Ron DeSantis, Florida’s conservative governor and potential contender for the 2024 presidential election, had maliciously embarked on “the political showmanship of attempting to demonize a particular group or community.” He declared that New York City would stand “in unison” with the LGBTQ community, and their “right to have self-identification.”
Why then, especially considering Adams’s progressive bona fides, has he suffered searing critiques from his own party and within his own ideological camp?
The reason is that Adams has legitimized policies animated by a religious worldview in the public square. Messrs. Perry, Whitehead, and Gorski have tried to warn the American public of the dangers and threats posed by such rhetoric and beliefs to the American constitutional order. What their model didn’t seem to bank on was the kind of clarity and religiously infused politics of a progressive like Eric Adams. In fact, the internal logic of Adams’s speech refutes the strict separationist paradigm peddled by the anti-Christian nationalist crowd.
If Eric Adams can enter into the public arena with his brand of, shall we call it, progressive Christian nationalism, then why can’t evangelical Christians do the same? If undergirding the mayor’s pro-abortion or pro-LGBTQ ethic is, in his mind, an indissoluble foundation of religious conviction, then why can’t conservatives do the same with their beliefs on the same issues? Hence the furor on the political left.
While I disagree with Adams on much of his policy (and certainly his religion), and while I have issues with the label “Christian nationalism,” Adams tapped into something fundamentally true about the human condition and the realities of public debate. Religious neutrality in political policy, especially on matters inherently moral and ethical, is impossible to achieve. As secular as Jennifer Rubin or the folks at the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty think their positions are, they are, in fact, profoundly religious. Issues like abortion, marriage, family, and the entire array of LGBTQ politics requires religious, indeed, theological declarations.
If the main crime of a conservative Christian nationalist is that he forces his “sectarian” ideology on others, then surely all—even the progressives—have sinned and fallen short of the glory of the supposedly neutral public square. None are innocent because all hope to inculcate within the society via the mechanisms of law a specific kind of morality and ethical framework. We have competing visions for human flourishing animated by fundamentally religious and theological worldviews that are, quite frankly, impossible to lay aside when we engage in public debate.
Furthermore, what Eric Adams said was true: in many ways, the religious disposition of a people functions like the heart of a nation. And that is why evangelical Christians must not surrender the national consciousness to the ravages of progressive theology. A heart fashioned in the image of Adams’s religious worldview would also kill the body of a nation, poisoning it with infanticide, the dissolution of the family, and the eradication of ontological truth.
In other words, evangelical Christians need to engage the culture and proclaim the glories of God, his gospel, and the beauty of his created order—and to do so with the same kind of clarity and moral conviction that Adams displayed in his speech. If Eric Adams is ready to wield his progressivist theological agenda in the public square, Christians had better be ready and willing to respond with the truth of God’s Word for a lost and dying world that desperately needs redemption. Proclamation, not surrender, must be our vision, lest Jesus’s indictment be true of us: “the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light” (Luke 16:8).
*Image Credit: Unplash