Three years ago, constitutional attorney, atheist, author, and “fake Christian” Andrew Seidel wrote about the threat of Christian nationalism in his book The Founding Myth, arguing that we were never a “Christian Nation” in any real sense of that phrase. Yet even though we weren’t founded as a Christian country, and even though we won’t be a Christian-majority nation for much longer, those who pretend otherwise have plenty of power.
The hub of that power isn’t in Congress. It’s in the Supreme Court, where a right-wing majority has enforced conservative Christianity at the expense of church/state separation. It’s why Seidel’s latest book focuses on their actions and arguments.
In American Crusade: How the Supreme Court Is Weaponizing Religious Freedom, out today, Seidel takes a look at some of the most consequential church/state decisions this particular Court has made and how they affect us today. Even though the book was largely written before the most recent term—Seidel wrote an addendum for those who want an update—there’s no shortage of cases to dig into.
In the exclusive excerpt below, Seidel writes about how the Courts are central to the new Crusade to perpetuate white evangelical Christianity to the peril of all other Americans.
The Book of Isaiah tells of a time when people “shall beat their swords into plowshares.” Repurposing weapons of war into implements of production, security, and stability is a lovely sentiment, but American Christians are proving the prophecy false. They’re beating plowshares into swords. In particular, they’re beating religious freedom into a sword. Turning a hallowed tool that protected conscience from government overreach—more of a shield than a farm implement—into a weapon. A network of faithful and well-funded activist groups are attempting to redefine and weaponize religious liberty. I’ll call them “Crusaders” throughout this book. The Crusaders are perverting this constitutional protection to reshape it into a weapon to impose their religion on others.
The weapon is exclusive. You may wield it, if you’re of the “right” religion. If you’re a Christian or, really, if you’re the right kind of a conservative Christian. Successfully forging this weapon will codify the receding privilege of this dwindling minority in the face of equality and demographic change. They’ll become a special, favored class to which the laws do not apply.
But to do that, they have to redefine what religious freedom means for the average American, and judges have to agree to redraft a long-standing constitutional right. Quite a few are ready to do so.
Our Supreme Court is on the verge of consummating this contradictory notion of religious liberty and grafting it onto our Constitution. Unless we stop it and undo the damage done, the First Amendment will mean supremacy for conservative Christians and sanction for bigotry in the name of Jesus.
Our Constitution gives “to bigotry no sanction,” wrote George Washington in a famous letter to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. Our first president toured the country in 1790 to shore up support for the new national government, unite the new country, and rally support for the constitutional amendments that would become the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment. He visited the synagogue and wrote the congregation a letter condemning the idea that the government would simply tolerate religious minorities. Toleration claims power, but does not exercise it. Thomas Paine put it like this a year later: “Toleration is not the opposite of intolerance, but is the counterfeit of it. Both are despotisms. The one assumes to itself the right of withholding liberty of conscience, and the other of granting it.” In her remarkable book, Caste, Isabel Wilkerson tells us, “It is not enough to be tolerant. You tolerate mosquitoes in the summer, a rattle in an engine, the gray slush that collects at the crosswalk in the winter. You tolerate what you would rather not have to deal with and wish would go away. It is no honor to be tolerated.”
Instead of toleration, Washington focused on individual rights, which the constitutional amendments set out to protect:
The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.
The Crusaders, however, want to return to “tolerance.” They want to go back to a time before the Constitution, when Christians were in charge of everything, unfettered by legal restraints, and when religious minorities and nonbelievers existed on sufferance.
The famous line from Washington’s letter rejects this: “happily the Government of the United States . . . gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
This understanding of religious freedom, which “requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens,” as Washington phrased it, is antithetical to claims that religious freedom allows one person to violate the rights of others. This version of religious freedom gives bigotry a sanction.
Can a business refuse to serve a gay couple in violation of civil rights laws because the owner is a conservative Christian? Can the government refuse to issue lawful licenses or documents to a gay couple because the issuing official is born-again? Can businesses and officials refuse to serve Black Americans because their personal god says so? Do Christian parents have a right to use the government’s taxing power to fund their children’s Christian schools? Can they do this even though our taxes already pay for an entire school system that’s open to all? Can a city council ban certain religious practices in an effort to drive a church out of town? Can business owners thwart laws that grant employees’ health-care rights because of what the owners’ holy book supposedly dictates? Can government officials use state power and resources to spread Islam? What about Christianity? What about erecting and maintaining a 40-foot-tall Christian cross on government property? Can believers ignore rules that protect public health?
The answer to each question, posed in real cases, should be “no.”
Legal questions of religious freedom are not always simple. They can be complicated and, more often, emotionally fraught. Especially when they involve children. But in their push to weaponize religious liberty, the Crusaders have misled and confounded many Americans about where we draw the legal lines for this founding American principle. While religious freedom cases may not raise simple questions, they’re not very hard either.
The Crusade is a quest to remake a protection into a weapon for maintaining a dominant group’s status in the face of waning demographic power. This isn’t a novel observation. “This legal offensive to elevate ‘religious liberty’ over other civic goals is coming even as the share of Americans who ascribe to no religious faith is steadily rising, and as white Christians have fallen to a minority share of the population,” wrote Ronald Brownstein in The Atlantic.
Religious freedom is a weapon for White Christian Americans to plant their crosses on public land, declaring it theirs, not ours.
For White Christian Americans to discriminate against lesser groups, lesser castes.
For White Christian Americans to remove their children from the public school system—integrated and diverse—and put them in private religious schools at taxpayer expense, forcing taxpayers to maintain two educational systems, one for everyone, the other for the waning dominant caste.
For White Christian Americans to deny bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom to people deemed subservient by their holy book.
For White Christian Americans to opt out of public health measures meant to protect everyone in a pandemic.
Most importantly, for this dominant caste to declare unconstitutional any failure to recognize any of these privileges. To declare that equality is hostility.
The expansion of equality and withering religious and racial hegemony is the contested territory in many religious freedom cases. This means that Christian privilege should be losing, not winning more often. In reality, we’re not expanding rights or giving new rights; we are recognizing rights that have always existed under the law but were never enforced. We are affirming the humanity of our brothers and sisters and admitting that we’ve been wrong. As we realize the aspirational values implicit in “We the People,” “equal justice under law,” “all . . . are created equal,” and other founding maxims, as we recognize that humans are human and worthy of rights, White Christian America is dying a slow demographic death and rebelling. They are raging against the dying of their privilege.
For an even more in-depth conversation about the topics covered in this book, I spoke with Seidel earlier this month about the issues he raises in American Crusade:
There is no more vital book for our times. And given his experience working with the Freedom From Religion Foundation and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Andrew Seidel is the perfect person to write about the new American crusade and the recent court trend toward weaponizing Christianity at the expense of real religious freedom. You can pick up your copy today. Signed copies are available at his website.
Reprinted with permission from American Crusade: How the Supreme Court Is Weaponizing Religious Freedom by Andrew L. Seidel (Union Square & Co., September 2022). All links are for Amazon affiliate accounts.