American Religious Exceptionalism Under Attack

Both the Catholic Bishops seeking to deny President Joe Biden Holy Communion because he opposes banning abortions and the leaders of the white conservative wing of the Southern Baptist Convention with a history of denying black Americans their political and social rights have, in fact, attacked American exceptionalism. We are exceptional because, almost alone among the major countries of the world, we were born as a nation without an established state religion. The Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution to keep it that way. Unfortunately, the Bishops and preachers have entered the political arena to establish their sectarian doctrines as the law of the land.

These Bishops and the Baptist preachers should reread the ‘Establishment Clause’ of our Constitution and get a primer on American history.  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”  The bishops ignore the phrase I have italicized, i.e., the establishment of religion. These bishops, best described as reactionaries, threatened the elected President of the United States with excommunication if he does not bend to their will. (If anyone takes offense at the term ‘excommunication’, I suggest that they consult a dictionary. To deny communion is to put the person outside the sacraments of the Church.) They seek to write the rules for the secular democratically elected power. These bishops hark back to the medieval conflicts between Popes and the Holy Roman Emperors as a series of Popes excommunicated a series of Emperors in a grab for secular power that caused numerous wars. The Pope excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople in 1054. That act of excommunication ultimately justified the 4th Crusade and the sacking of Constantinople. To strip the argument to its bare bones, the reactionary bishops assert that they can compel Roman Catholic government officials, including a President, to enforce Roman Catholic canon law on the United States. If this is not “establishment of religion,” what is? 

These reactionary bishops seem to have forgotten the vicious accusations that John F. Kennedy, when he ran for President in 1960 would, as a Catholic, obey the Pope rather than the Constitution. Do they now want to make that slander true? Better that they pay more attention to these excerpts from JFK’s historic speech of September 12, 1960, as to why he, as a Catholic, could serve as President:

While the so-called religious issue is necessarily and properly the chief topic here tonight, I want to emphasize from the outset that we have far more critical issues to face in the 1960 election: … (including) the hungry children I saw in West Virginia; the old people who cannot pay their doctor bills; the families forced to give up their farms; an America with too many slums, with too few schools, …”

The Roman Catholic Church has done more to advance social justice, charity, and equality than any other single institution in our country. Those bishops risk destroying that legacy. Fortunately for the Church and for the souls of the bishops themselves, Pope Francis appears to have subtly nixed this attempt to revert to the Dark Ages.

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) have just completed their annual conference with the defeat of a leadership candidate who could legitimately be described as a supporter of White Supremacy by a conservative – in the correct meaning of the term – willing to discuss the history of the SBC in the suppression of blacks. The SBC originated in 1845 when southern Baptists broke off from the larger Baptist communion in reaction to northern Baptists taking up the abolitionist cause. The SBC wrote a theology justifying the enslavement of blacks, opposed Reconstruction after the Civil War, and blessed Jim Crow laws. The SBC rejected integration and fought against the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The SBC has a long history of active engagement in politics, opposing abortion, gender and women’s rights, as well as racial equality. Its pastors frequently preach politics from behind the pulpit. The SBC has real power as the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, second only to the Catholic Church. Its leadership has shown no hesitancy in preaching politics. One of the best-known Southern Baptist preachers, the Reverent Franklin Graham, has made headlines preaching on behalf of President Trump. President Trump repaid the support by issuing an executive order in 2017 that sought to nullify the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 tax law that forbids charities, including Churches, from endorsing or opposing political candidates if they want to retain their tax-free status.

Opposing attempts to impose religious doctrine on Americans does not equate to opposing freedom of religious practice. One may find a baker’s refusal to provide a wedding cake to a gay couple personally objectionable, but the state has no right to force him to do so. The baker in question did not enjoy a state-granted monopoly in his town and the wedding party had other options. 

Most interestingly white Southern Baptists and reactionary Catholic Bishops have made common cause in pursuit of political power, despite the centuries-old hostility between the two groups.  Fortunately, both groups suffered political setbacks in recent weeks, giving American exceptionalism and its democracy a breather.came in Engel v. Vitale in 1962. 

Justice Black writing "it is no part of the official business of government to compose official prayers for any group of American people to recite as part of a religious program carried out by the Government.


This article is part of a continuing series dealing with reports of Greek POWs in Asia Minor in the Thessaloniki newspaper, Makedonia in July 1936.

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