The Bright Line Between Good and Evil (Episode #340)
“Back in 2016, Trump ran away with the Republican nomination despite a crowded field of candidates, many of whom had real religious bona fides. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a member of a Southern Baptist Church in Houston, often quoted scripture during his stump speech. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted a Bible verse a day. Yet, despite lack of any religious credibility, Trump won half of the votes of Republicans who attended religious services weekly in 2016, while Cruz only got only 30 percent of their votes and Rubio earned 11 percent.
That was significant, but it would have meant little had he not earned huge support from Republicans who weren’t religious. During the nomination process, two in five Republicans described their religious attendance as “seldom” or “never” according to data from the VOTER Survey, a longitudinal study sponsored by the Democracy Fund that repeatedly interviews thousands of Americans. Among those who said that they never attended religious services, two-thirds were Trump voters in the 2016 Republican primary. Cruz, by contrast, managed just 16 percent of this group. Among those who described their attendance as “seldom,” Trump secured 57 percent of the vote while Cruz only tallied 22 percent.”
“In 2016, 39 percent of all Republican voters attended church less than once a year. In comparison, just 36 percent said that they attended religious services at least once a week.”
“In 2008, 44 percent of Republicans reported that they were in church at least once per week. By 2022, that number had slipped to just 35 percent. In comparison, the share of Democrats who attended weekly only declined five percentage points (23 percent to 18 percent) during the same time period.”
“The establishment clause provides simply that there can be no law “respecting an establishment of religion.” It does not explain what an “establishment of religion” is. Nor does it lay out in any detail when the government can and cannot provide benefits to a religious institution.
Armed only with this vague text, the Supreme Court has offered several competing explanations for why the establishment clause exists and what it was intended to prevent. At times, the Court has said that it exists to prevent the government from coercing nonbelievers into acts of devotion they find objectionable. At other times, the Court has described the establishment clause as a nod to pluralism — something that allows many religious traditions to thrive in the United States by forbidding the government from taking sides in religious debates.
Everson was rooted in the first of these two rationales, the belief that the government may not coerce others into religious exercise. As Justice Hugo Black wrote in that case, the clause is intended to universalize a Virginia statute, authored by Thomas Jefferson, which provided that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief.”
Everson read this prohibition on coerced religious activity expansively to include not just direct use of force against nonbelievers, but also the use of taxes collected from the general public to fund religion. As Black wrote, “individual religious liberty could be achieved best under a government which was stripped of all power to tax, to support, or otherwise to assist any or all religions, or to interfere with the beliefs of any religious individual or group.””
“Fifteen years later, in Engel v. Vitale (1962), Black laid out a different theory of why the establishment clause exists.
In Engel, the Court struck down a school district’s policy of requiring teachers to begin each school day by reciting a prayer authored by the school board. “One of the greatest dangers to the freedom of the individual to worship in his own way,” Black warned, “lay in the Government’s placing its official stamp of approval upon one particular kind of prayer or one particular form of religious services.”
The central idea animating Engel was that, if the government is allowed to write prayers or otherwise put its seal of approval on particular religious practices, then US politics will inevitably be consumed by religious believers from competing faiths, all lobbying elected officials to make sure that their religion receives the government’s blessing.
The Court reached this conclusion after considering 16th-century English history, when Parliament approved a Book of Common Prayer that “set out in minute detail the accepted form and content of prayer and other religious ceremonies to be used in the established, tax-supported Church of England.” This led to perpetual lobbying, and frequent strife, over just what prayers the government should endorse and which ones it should reject. Powerful religious groups “struggled among themselves to impress their particular views upon the Government,” while less powerful religious believers literally fled the country — many of them becoming early American colonists.
According to Engel, the First Amendment was drafted in large part to prevent this kind of strife among religious factions from occurring in the United States. The founding generation, Black wrote, was not willing “to let the content of their prayers and their privilege of praying whenever they pleased be influenced by the ballot box.”
Thus, while Everson read the establishment clause as a shield against the government coercing nonbelievers into participating in religion, Engel saw it more as a safeguard for pluralism. The idea behind the later decision was that, for multiple faith traditions to coexist peacefully in the United States, the government had to be hyper-cautious about picking favorites among them.
Of course, these two theories of the establishment clause are not mutually exclusive”
” before the Roberts Court started dismantling the establishment clause’s safeguards, the Court recognized two values implicit in this clause: 1) the right to be free from coerced religious activity, and 2) the right to live in a pluralistic society where the government does not favor one person’s religion over the other. The right against coercion extended not just to direct pressure by the state, but also to more subtle forms of pressure such as a public school ceremony that effectively forces a student to choose between participating in a prayer or risking ostracizing themselves from their classmates. Meanwhile, the pluralistic right prevented the government from endorsing a particular religious viewpoint above others.
All of that went by the wayside, however, in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (2022).”
“Bremerton is a mystifying decision, in part because the six Republican-appointed justices in the majority took great liberties with the case’s facts. It involved a high school football coach who would pray at the 50-yard line following games — in full view of students, players, and spectators, and sometimes surrounded by many of them as he was praying. There are photographs of crowds surrounding this coach as he prayed, some of which were included in Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent.
Yet Justice Neil Gorsuch, who wrote the Court’s opinion, falsely claimed that this coach only wanted to offer a “short, private, personal prayer.””
“while the Bremerton opinion is not a model of clarity, two lessons can be extracted from it. One is that the ban on government endorsements of religion — the mechanism the Court used to ensure that a plurality of faiths would thrive in the United States — is now dead. The other is that, while the Court still recognizes that some forms of government coercion into religious behavior are not allowed, its Republican majority appears eager to narrow the definition of “coercion.” There may even be five votes for Scalia’s position — that the government may actively promote religion so long as it does not use force or the threat of penalty to do so.”
“One form of coercion that the current Court permits is the government may now take taxes from a nonbeliever — taxes that the nonbeliever must pay to avoid criminal sanctions — and use them to fund religious education.”
“Read together, the Roberts Court’s establishment clause cases suggest that the Court probably will not neutralize this clause altogether. But they have already neutralized many of its modern applications, and they appear likely to endorse government behavior that would not have been tolerated even in the recent past.”