The First Amendment’s two religion clauses require the government to “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Historically, the Supreme Court has interpreted these clauses by saying, for example, that a government official like a public school teacher may not lead prayer in a classroom, but a student may silently pray in school. While the Constitution does not explicitly set out a theory of the separation between church and state, in 1947 Justice Hugo Black constitutionalized the theory in the landmark case, Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township. Black’s statement is very clear and pointed, and here it is in full.
He ruled that “neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will, or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or nonattendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups, and vice versa. In the words of [Thomas] Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between church and State.’ ”
A few years later, Justice Tom Clark, a devout Presbyterian who served on the Supreme Court from 1949 to 1967, also held strong views concerning people’s relationship with their faith. By his lights, religion was a personal matter. Writing for the Court in Schempp v. Abington School District (1963), he wrote that “the place of religion in our society is an exalted one, achieved through a long tradition of reliance on the home, the church, and the inviolable citadel of the individual heart and mind.” Religion was a private affair between an individual and God, and not one involved in the public sphere.
These views are consonant with those American founders like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton expressed. They were deists; that is, they believed in a God as Creator who left it to human beings to improve his work or destroy it. Most rejected institutional Christianity with churches, priests, and liturgy. Religion was a matter of free will. As Thomas Paine put it in “The Age of Reason” (1794): “I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life … My mind is my own church.”
Contrast these views with those expressed by newly elected House Speaker Mike Johnson. In an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Johnson said that “‘someone asked me today in the media, they said, ‘People are curious. What does Mike Johnson think about any issue under the sun?’ I said, ‘Well, go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it — that’s my worldview. That’s what I believe, and so I make no apologies for it.’”
As an evangelical Christian, Speaker Johnson has long opposed abortion, and gay and transgender rights. He has advocated the imprisonment of people engaging in abortion, same-sex relations, and attempting transgender surgeries. He has said that homosexual relations will lead to the destruction of “the entire democratic system.” Unlike Justice Clark, he does not privately practice his religious faith, but has striven to design to place his religious beliefs fully in policy and lawmaking. For Johnson, although America was founded as a Christian nation, it has lost that foundation, and must be brought back to service to God.
He believes the Declaration of Independence is an American “creed,” a “religious statement of faith.” For Jefferson, the Declaration was no such thing: It was a political document presenting the reasons for the Americans’ desire to separate from the British Empire, period.
But his remarks echo those spoken by Justice Samuel Alito in a 2020 address to the Federalist Society, a conservative group of lawyers who led the campaign to place three new highly conservative justices on the court, all nominated by former President Trump: Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. Justice Alito said that “religious liberty is fast becoming a disfavored right.”
The Supreme Court’s most recent rulings concerning religion reflect his desires. A majority ruled that a Philadelphia Catholic social services organization, on religious grounds, could prohibit same-sex couples from becoming foster parents. They upheld a high school football coach’s desire to pray with his players after games, on the 50-yard line.
And they even decided a case that was purely speculative, something that the Court has never done before. A web designer who planned in the future to create web pages for weddings pre-emptively sought to exclude same-sex couples on religious grounds. She had never even designed a wedding website, but states on her website that “as a Christian who believes that God gave me the creative gifts that are expressed through this business, I have always strived to honor Him in how I operate it.” She asked the court to allow her to exclude same-sex couples, and six justices agreed, even though her case was hypothetical.
We have come a long way from Thomas Paine and Justices Black and Clark. And if Speaker Johnson has his way, we may well be on the road to becoming a Christian nation, with all other religions, agnostics, and atheists residing here as guests.
Jack Fruchtman, who lives in Aquinnah, has written three books on Thomas Paine and one on Benjamin Franklin.