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Eric Adams’ anti-secular rant should not surprise Democrats this much

For Adams, trashing separationism does not necessarily alienate his base.

Whenever Democrats speak at “prayer breakfasts,” secular nausea ensues. On Tuesday, New York City Mayor Eric Adams induced queasiness in secularists, be they believers or nonbelievers, when he proclaimed: “Don’t tell me about no separation of church and state. State is the body. Church is the heart. You take the heart out of the body, the body dies.” 

That was only the coffee and juice. The Democrat then lamented the 1962 Supreme Court decision which deemed voluntary, nondenominational school prayer to be a violation of the establishment clause. “When we took prayers out of schools,” the mayor reasoned, “guns came into schools.” And then the sausages were served: Adams modestly noted that he employs a “godlike approach” when implementing his policies.

Democratic voters, and even sometimes secular activists, need to better grasp how thorough the decimation of the mid-century separationist status quo has been.

The New York Times described the event as “surreal.” Then again, The New York Times platforms a bevy of anti-secular opinion columnists, alongside guest essayists who reason that Tucker Carlson, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and BarStool Sports founder David Portnoy represent the vanguard of a fresh, new secular conservatism. But for those who study American secularism, there was little surreal or even surprising about the interfaith breakfast. The assault on the “wall of separation between church and state” has been ongoing for half a century; it is all but accomplished. 

“These comments from Mayor Adams,” wrote Amanda Tyler, executive director of Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, "are extremely troubling. We should expect our elected officials to govern without regard to religion and respect the institutional separation of church and state, which ensures religious freedom for everyone.” The executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Donna Lieberman, remarked in a tweet: “On matters of faith, the Mayor is entitled to his own beliefs. On the Constitution, he must uphold his oath.”

The first step to countering this development is to accurately recognize what is going on. Democratic voters, and even sometimes secular activists, need to better grasp how thorough the decimation of the mid-century separationist status quo has been. They also need to accurately identify where these theocratic impulses come from and why they have political appeal.

Anti-separationism in particular, and anti-secularism in general (we’ll get to the differences below) are policies commonly associated with today’s GOP and its overlapping mix of religious conservatives and MAGA enthusiasts. But Democrats too, like Adams, have been playing with this holy fire for decades. Further, Adam’s position, as we shall see, is not that unusual among African American politicians and clerics. 

I’d venture that most conservative justices in this country do not believe that there is any constitutional validity to the notion of a wall of separation. They’ve sure been ruling that way for decades. The New York Times routinely refers to the “pro-religion” tilt of the United States Supreme Court (though they really should say pro-conservative religion). Recent majority opinions in cases like Dobbs and Kennedy are just the culmination of relentless judicial activism by the Christian right.  

As for red state legislatures, they have left no stone unturned in the rubble field that once was the wall of separation. An Oklahoma law lets private adoption agencies discriminate against placing adoptees with LGBTQ couples on religious grounds. Mandatory displays of “In God We Trust” are becoming increasingly commonplace. There are 24 states with abortion bans in place, or soon to be enacted. Once again, it’s hard to find Republicans who subscribe to the logic of separation (Contra the New York Times account, the First Amendment is no longer widely interpreted “to dictate such a separation”).

The resistance to separationism is considerable. Take a closer look at a recent study entitled “In U.S., Far More Support Than Oppose Separation of Church and State” and you’ll notice data that raises some contradictions. True, the 2021 Pew poll shows that only 34% of white evangelicals believe “the federal government should stop enforcing separation of church and state.”  

65% of white evangelicals favor allowing municipalities to put religious symbols on public property.

But drill down and you’ll see that 65% of white evangelicals favor allowing municipalities to put religious symbols on public property. In addition, 58% endorse permitting public school teachers to lead Christian prayers (for Catholics, the numbers are 43% and 29% respectively). In other words, huge numbers of people in the nation’s two most populous religious groups oppose the policies that defined mid-century American separationism. Meanwhile, 61% of Republicans favor declaring the United States a Christian nation

These judicial, legislative and popular trends away from separationism are not just driven by Republicans. The administration of Bill Clinton gingerly retreated from the staunch separationism of mid-century Democrats like John F. Kennedy. But the real shift occurred under Barack Obama. As it turned out, Obama, unlike Kennedy, did not “believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” 

Little did secularists know in 2004 that the state senator and his “awesome” Blue State God would, as president, gin up George W. Bush’s scandal-ridden Office of Faith-based Initiatives. They never expected that he’d talk about Christ (a lot) at Easter Prayer Breakfasts and National Prayer Breakfasts

They should have seen it coming. In his memoir “The Audacity of Hope,” the junior senator from Illinois lambasted his own party: “In reaction to religious overreach, we equate tolerance with secularism and forfeit the moral language that would help infuse our policies with a larger meaning.” 

Whether Obama meant secularism as in devoid of religiosity or as in church-state separation is unclear. His point was the Democratic Party was too secular. I always wanted to ask him: Isn’t secularism the political language that best combats religious overreach? 

Which brings us to the complex relation between African Americans and secularism. Separationist-secularism is a doctrine that, among other things, seeks to minimize the role of faith organizations in the determination of public policy. Separationists have historically been overwhelmingly white, often with all the attendant racism and/or blindspots to inequality. 

Given this history, and given the centrality of Black churches in the struggle against racial injustice, we might expect apathy, as opposed to enthusiasm, for separating faith from politics. Sure enough, the same Pew poll cited above showed that 24% of African Americans want the state to stop enforcing separation of church and state. And 40% had no opinion on the matter or refused to answer the question.

As for Mayor Adams, trashing separationism does not necessarily alienate his base. New York City has a large and politically influential ultra-Orthodox Jewish population. Unlike their liberal, Jewish co-religionists, they are no fans of secularism. They are highly supportive of the mayor and vote in disciplined blocs. When Adams’ aide, Ingrid Lewis-Martin, introduced him at the breakfast as a person who “doesn’t believe” in church-state separation, this likely did not concern them at all. 

Rabbi Abby Stein, who was also in attendance, was concerned. She found his remarks to be “unhinged and dangerous.” As a transgender woman, Stein wondered how this divisive, public invocation of faith could actually help people. 

I share her frustration and that of the secular organizations mentioned above. Though perhaps the path forward is to concede that mid-century secular separationism is, for all intents and purposes, dead and buried. Instead of demanding a wall (wall metaphors are not really enticing to liberals and progressives who survived the Trump era), perhaps secularists should demand equal rights for all citizens, regardless of their faith or lack thereof. 

When Adams says he is guided by God, that, of course, is his God’s voice, not mine. When he claims the church is the heart, that is his church, not my church, or mosque, or synagogue. When he derides separation of church and state, what exactly is he saying to legions of nonbelievers he governs in the five boroughs; surely they have a right to not be subjected to his church’s teaching? 

Not separation, but equality (and then equity). That is the prescription, the antacid, for the nation’s theocratic malaise.