Nobody Cares Whether You ‘Believe’ in the Separation of Church and State. That’s the Law, Champ.
Looking around the Republican farm system, it’s hard not to feel an escalating sense of doom for this ball club and the league they play in. Unfortunately, the rest of us are stuck in Major League Batshit with these people, a competition in desperate need of a relegation system. Politico enlivened this Friday with a report on an internecine MAGA dispute out of Tennessee, in which the batting champ got himself in hot water with other luminaries of the movement. Apparently, Madison Cawthorn and Candace Owens and Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene are unhappy that Donald Trump backed Morgan Ortagus, whom he once plucked from Fox News to serve as a spokesperson for the State Department, over Robby Starbuck, a MAGA social-media influencer, for a congressional endorsement. Donald Trump Jr. and Dan Scavino are also reportedly mad at Daddy, though not in public, and have you ever heard a list of such abysmally low-quality people exercising this kind of influence over one of our two major political parties? Whoever wins, this country loses.
Speaking of which, there’s the Ohio Senate primary. J.D. Vance, the venture-capitalist everyman backed by $10 million from a technovampire planting nice little seeds all over our politics, has had to play second fiddle to a more shameless and relentless MAGA devotee in Josh Mandel. This is Mandel’s third attempt at becoming a senator from Ohio, and it’s not hard to see why the first two campaigns came up short. The guy has Stephen Miller vibes. But in today’s Republican Party, he appears to be the frontrunner for the nomination, to the extent that he engaged in what looked like a general-election debate against a prospective Democratic opponent, Morgan Harper, before the primary races have been decided. (Congressman Tim Ryan is also running competitively in the Democratic primary.) On Thursday evening, Mandel at one point suggested that Obama orchestrated a George Soros-funded invasion of Haitians. People in the audience laughed loudly.
But we’ll leave aside the now-standard immigration hysteria and engage with one piece of Mandel’s reactionary exhibition in particular. We have returned, yet again, to the issue of church and state. The issue that will not die, from the corporate Christian push of the 1930s to the online message boards of Web 1.0, the issue that Mandel probably raised in the hopes of generating articles like this one that he can point to as evidence that the Woke Mob is out to Silence him.
Luckily, this principle does not require Mandel to “believe” in it for it to be a bedrock of American law and history. “When you read the United States Constitution,” he continued, “Nowhere in the United States Constitution do you read about separation of church and state.” Helpfully, Mandel botched the wording to make his point even weaker here. Had he said that the Constitution does not explicitly mention “a separation of church and state,” that would be correct, not that it’s anything more than pedantic. (As Princeton historian Kevin Kruse, author of a seminal volume on this dispute, put it on Twitter, “Every single reference to religion in the Constitution puts it at arms length from the state.”) Here’s a part of the constitutional text Mandel may want to consult:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…
Interesting that it’s the first line of the Bill of Rights. Seems important. But then again, the opening phrase of the Second Amendment (“A well regulated militia…”) has also been entirely erased somehow. The First Amendment doesn’t explicitly say there’s a separation between church and state, however. That’s true. Does that suggest something about The Founders, as Mandel tells us? Let’s ask some guy named Thomas Jefferson what this all means. From his “Letter to the Danbury Baptists” in 1802:
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.
Ah. And I thought we liked walls these days? But Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution. Let’s talk to the guy who wrote much of the latter, James Madison, who explained a veto in an 1811 speech as president thusly:
Because the Bill exceeds the rightful authority, to which Governments are limited by the essential distinction between Civil and Religious functions, and violates, in particular, the Article of the Constitution of the United States which declares, that “Congress shall make no law respecting a Religious establishment.”
And as usual, it’s Madison who gets to the core of the issue. Civil functions are separate from religious functions. If you want to make policy for civil society through the government, you must appeal to the principles undergirding the legal regime of civil society. Your religious beliefs are your own, and they may—and likely do—influence your opinions on matters of civil policy. But when you make an argument for rules everyone should live by, regardless of their religious beliefs, your justification cannot be the belief system of your own one religion. It doesn’t matter what your religion is. A spiritual belief is not grounds for making secular policy, and secular policy is what the United States government, at all levels, is in the business of making. You may feel, devoutly even, that America is a Christian Nation, but as we often hear these days, the facts do not care about your feelings. Besides, would Jesus really approve of American immigration policy?