November 16, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Theocrats and some liberals are wrong. The real problem is a growing religious movement to annihilate freedom of religion

On Mike Flynn and Josh Mandel.

Josh Mandel. Image courtesy of the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Josh Mandel. Image courtesy of the Cincinnati Enquirer.

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Mike Flynn and Josh Mandel do not stand at the center of the Republican Party. They do not stand at its margins either. Flynn is the former president’s former advisor. (He’s a pardoned criminal, too.) Mandel is Ohio’s leading Senate candidate. Both men have said in recent days they don’t believe in the separation of church and state.

I’m paraphrasing. See for yourself what they said. However, their remarks should be familiar. They reflect the GOP’s theocratic wing. For decades, it has opposed the incorporated interpretation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause. They used to be way, way out there. But, even if I’m missing something, Flynn’s and Mandel’s remarks suggest the GOP’s theocratic wing isn’t as marginal as it once was.

The temptation among liberals, even religious liberals, is to fall back on old arguments, to wit: America is not a Christian nation any more than it’s a Hindu nation. Its people are religious. Its government is secular. For many liberals, that’s what separation of church and state means.

Liberals have always been alarmed by the theocrats. Liberals know that when they talk about so-called “Judeo-Christian” values, they don’t mean Jews of any stripe. They don’t mean the full spectrum of Christianity. Mormons are not included. Neither are Episcopalians, Methodists or Presbyterians. Unitarians, like me, are cultists. Jehovah’s Witnesses are heretics. Only “real Christians” need apply, meaning twice-born believers in Christ saving them from eternal damnation.

Liberals should be more alarmed, especially religious liberals, but they may not know they should be. After all, the theocrats keep telling us, and the Washington press corps keeps telling us, that they are merely fighting for their Constitutional right to worship as they please, however they please. Religious liberals, therefore, might be thinking their religious freedoms will be secure, no matter what happens. 

That, however, overlooks the theocrats’ unending bad faith. They don’t mean all Jews or all Christians when defending “Judeo-Christian values.” And they don’t mean everyone’s freedom of religion. They mean theirs. That’s why figures such as Flynn and Mandel say what they said. Liberals, especially religious liberals, should be more alarmed. The theocrats are assaulting (everyone’s) religious freedom in the name of (their) religious freedom. When they say the United States was founded as a “Christian nation,” they’re telling us their desires.

Before I go on, a word about Josh Mandel. As I said, he’s Ohio’s leading Republican candidate for the Senate. He’s also Jewish. Some say his appeal to the GOP’s theocratic wing means the GOP’s theocratic wing can’t possibly desire the creation of a “Christian nation.” After all, he’s a Jew! Friend, I don’t need to tell you shameless people sometimes say all sorts of things. If you think Mandel’s candidacy means the theocrats believe in freedom of religion for everyone, I have a bridge to sell. 


The temptation among liberals, even religious liberals, is to fall back on old arguments, to wit: America is not a Christian nation any more than it’s a Hindu nation. Its people are religious. Its government is secular. For many liberals, that’s what separation of church and state means.

The truth is more complex. As Editorial Board legal historian Mia Brett wrote in April. “The United States was founded with an attempt at secularism as well as freedom of religion.” In theory, the objective is balancing those interests. (In practice, it has meant something quite different, as Dr. Brett explains.) To reach that ideal, however, liberals should remember what “secular” means. It does not mean the absence of religion. It does not mean hostility toward it. It means indifference to it — or, rather, the equal treatment and protection of all religions.

The theocrats are correct when they say religion has a place in the people’s business. They are wrong in lying about what they mean. (They mean their religion and theirs alone.) When liberals fall back on old arguments based on misunderstandings of secularism’s meaning — “keep religion out of government matters!” — they end up empowering the theocratic position by legitimating it. The theocrats tell us they believe the “secular left” wants to drive out religion. Worse, liberals risk making allies out of theocrats and religious liberals, who might not see any harm in having a place for religion in the public square.

They’re right. There is no harm. As long as the state is impartial to particular religions but partial toward freedom of religion. Put another way, as long as the state treats and protects religions equally. If the courthouse has a spot for the Ten Commandments, it has a spot for the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism. By privileging presence over absence, liberals take the gas out of the theocrats’ position. By defending the First Amendment, rather than by opposing religion, liberals end up bringing attention to the real problem, which is the growing religious movement toward annihilating freedom of religion. 

Finally, I expect some liberals to disagree with me. I expect them to defend calling for the ouster of all religions from all matters of public life. Well, more power to them. That’s the conflict I would like to see more of — between camps with differing views on the meaning of secularism — rather than conflict between camps with the same meaning with the difference being one is for, the other against. One of these is better for democracy. It’s not the one we’re currently having.


John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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