Ever since President Thomas Jefferson first coined the phrase in 1802, Americans have debated exactly how high the “wall of separation” should be between religion and state. The debate continues to this day. For example, the question of whether that ought to allow or prohibit government aid to religious institutions of various kinds, including schools, remains a matter of contention with both sides pointing to history and the law to justify their positions. These discussions reflect a basic truth about the central role that faith has always played in the public square of the republic since it first came into existence.
But if there is any point about the intersection between religion and state that is settled and not open to disputation, it is the one about whether the United States would have a state religion. This past weekend, that principle was challenged when Gen. Michael Flynn, who served a brief stint as former President Donald Trump’s first national security advisor, told a “Reawaken America” rally in Texas sponsored by a Christian broadcasting network: “If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God, and one religion under God.”
The response to this outrageous assertion was nearly but not entirely unanimous throughout the political spectrum. In particular, Jewish groups from liberals at the Anti-Defamation League to the more conservative Zionist Organization of America condemned Flynn for his perversion of the traditional pledge of allegiance into advocacy for a state religion, which in the context of the event was obviously intended to be some form of Christianity.
For Flynn, this may be a natural conclusion to a trip down the QAnon extremist rabbit hole from which he seems incapable of emerging. A brilliant military officer who was known for bucking the establishment, he joined the Trump campaign in 2016 and was one of its mainstays. His appointment as the president’s chief aide on security issues was his reward for his steadfast support. But his tenure was cut short when he was shown to have lied to Vice President Mike Pence about being questioned about contacts with the Russians in the weeks prior to his taking office. The context was a dubious probe into the false claim that Trump had colluded with the Russians to steal the 2016 election. The conversation in question was also inoffensive since in it, he appears to have told the Russians that Trump would not let stand former President Barack Obama’s parting stab in the back to Israel with his failure to veto a U.N. resolution treating the Jewish presence in the West Bank and Jerusalem as illegal.
But Flynn’s lie was his undoing, and he was forced to resign. The Russia collusion story was a conspiracy theory, and the unfair treatment of Flynn by the U.S. Department of Justice should have resulted in the criminal charges against him being thrown out. In the end, he was pardoned by his former boss and had to settle for being treated like a martyr by conservatives who resented the way the media flogged a false story in order to discredit the president.
Whether it was the result of his legal ordeal or something else, Flynn emerged from this process as someone who was prepared to embrace all sorts of extremist ideas, including those associated with the shadowy QAnon group. That this led him to embrace notions that are clearly antithetical to the loyalty to the Constitution he once pledged to defend is a disturbing commentary on our times. But because of his former close ties to Trump, even crackpot statements like this one calling for only “one religion” to be legitimate cannot be ignored.
And since in the hyperpartisan context of the times, anything that can be represented as being a riposte to the establishment that some on the right feel has sought to silence conservatives, it was perhaps inevitable that there would be some expressions of support for what he said.
The most prominent such example came from Josh Mandel, a former Ohio State Treasurer who is currently the frontrunner in the Republican primary race for a U.S. Senate seat. When Mandel tweeted his backing for Flynn in the hours after the video of the “one religion” statement went viral on the Internet by saying “We stand with General Flynn,” it mattered not just because he was a political notable, but because he is Jewish and the grandson of Holocaust survivors.
Mandel touts himself as “fighting to protect the Judeo-Christian bedrock of America.” The idea of a Judeo-Christian heritage is disputed by some who think that it downplays the stark differences between the two faiths, yet it was a catchphrase for interfaith dialogue in the era before Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus became accepted as part of the American mainstream. Mandel may believe, like many Christian conservatives whose support he seeks in the election, that efforts by left-wingers to banish faith from the American public square are wrong. However, he goes much further than most conservatives by calling for the abolition of public schools and their replacement by those in churches and synagogues.
This may help him in a battle with author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance for the Senate, in which both men are eager to be identified as the most ardent Trump supporters, as well as aligned with conservative Christians on social issues. So close is he to the Christian right that one of his rivals broadcast a clearly anti-Semitic ad that sought to remind voters that Mandel is Jewish, even though he has worn his religious identity and strong support for Zionism on his sleeve throughout his political career.
Mandel’s deep dive into the culture war has also led him to use inappropriate Holocaust analogies about vaccine mandates. Indeed, by embracing extremists like Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene (R-Ga.), who has also promoted QAnon, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that he isn’t so much forging a coalition with the far-right as joining it.
It is astonishing that someone with such deep roots in the Jewish community as Mandel would not understand that speaking of “one religion” is not just a line that no American who supports the Constitution should cross, but a particularly dangerous idea for Jews.
Still, it’s important to understand that the discussion about this issue must go deeper than just condemnations of Flynn and Mandel.
The role of faith in American life has seemed to be under siege in recent years. Some on the left have sought to hound those conservatives who dissented from what have become mainstream positions about gay marriage out of the public square. Whatever one thinks about those issues, efforts to essentially annul the freedom of religion where it conflicts with gay or transgender rights are wrong. Those who argue that the point of the First Amendment was to guarantee freedom of religion rather than freedom from it are correct.
Though some of the founding fathers were, like Jefferson, Deists who had little use for organized religion, most were persons of faith and considered it an essential element for maintaining their experiment in self-government. John Adams, Jefferson’s predecessor as president, spoke for most of his generation of leaders when he stated that, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Though the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was clear on the subject of state religions, for a very long time that was widely thought only to apply to the federal government. At the time that he penned those words, some of the states in the union still had established religions as a holdover from their previous existence as colonies. New Hampshire had an established faith until 1817 and Connecticut until 1818. The Congregationalist branch of Protestantism was the state religion of Massachusetts until 1833.
Even so, state support for religious schools was routine throughout the country until the late 19th century, when a wave of anti-Catholic hatred led to the passage of so-called “Blaine Amendments” (so named for Maine Sen. James Blaine, a GOP presidential candidate and one-time secretary of state who sought to stoke bias against Catholics for political profit). Those laws banned government funding for parochial schools.
It was not until the mid-20th century that the notion of Jefferson’s “wall of separation” being “high and impregnable”—in the words of Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black—became popular. That led to the banning of the heretofore universal practice of organized prayer in the schools and other efforts to make the distance between religion and state wider.
It is legitimate to argue that too high a wall of separation is bad for the country, as well as religious minorities like the Jews, since it leads to hostility against faith as well as prevents the sort of aid to faith-based schools that are both constitutional and necessary for their survival.
Yet that argument should not be confused with an establishment of one faith as a state religion in brazen contradiction to the text of the First Amendment. Those who claim that America must be a purely secular country are ignoring history, the law and the character of the American people. The United States is a nation of many faiths, as well as one that guarantees the right not to have one at all. It can never be a nation of just one faith. Those who claim the contrary aren’t advocating for religious liberty but for religious despotism that can neither be tolerated nor excused.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.