The United States has moved from an era of separation of church and state to one of “segregation of church and state,” author/activist Curt Smith argues in a new book detailing the passage and repeal of Indiana’s 2015 religious freedom law.
The result is an “aggressive and debilitating bleaching out of all things eternal from our national nature,” says Smith, a former journalist and Capitol Hill staff member who serves as president of the Indiana Family Institute.
The dictionary defines separation as the act of keeping two things apart, and segregation as the isolation of a group by discriminatory means. In “Deicide — How Eliminating the Deity is Destroying America,” Smith documents the shift from government neutrality toward religion — i.e. separation of church and state — to “pronounced hostility” toward a faith-based worldview.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the firestorm that erupted after the passage of RFRA, the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, for which Smith lobbied during the 2015 legislature.
RFRA was patterned after a law enacted by Congress in 1993 and adopted at one point or another by 31 states. Its goal was to protect religious practices from government interference, whether a church’s ability to feed the homeless in city parks or — in an example more frequently cited by critics — a baker’s ability to refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.
The law said government may impose on “a person’s exercise of religion” only if it can show that it is furthering a compelling governmental interest and using the least restrictive means of doing so.
Within days of the law’s signing by Gov. Mike Pence, opponents launched an organized campaign to discredit it as bigoted and homophobic, with some businesses threatening economic reprisals if the law stood. Faced with the loss of convention business and bad publicity on the eve of the NCAA basketball finals in Indianapolis, the legislature and governor reversed course. They passed a legislative “fix” that, in Smith’s view, “completely and utterly reversed the protections RFRA had just created for individuals of faith.”
This is not what the Founders had in mind when they wrote the Declaration of Independence, crediting the “Creator” as the source of natural rights worthy of protection by government, Smith says.
When it comes to the public square today, people with biblical views have become second-class citizens and face harassment and ad hominem attacks for their political positions. They are not welcomed to the discussion but rather chased from it. Smith himself has endured liberals’ taunts of “hater,” “bigot” and “murderer” in response to his lobbying efforts to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
Smith proposes a three-prong strategy to bring the deity back into public life. First, he says, elected officials should invite and encourage public testimony and private input on policy from responsible faith leaders. All involved in the political process should agree to evaluate legislative proposals for their content only and not attempt to divine ulterior motives or intent of the sponsors. In the current environment, conservative, pro-family advocates are dismissed by media and cultural elites as homophobes or haters, with no serious consideration to the substance of their proposals or the research behind them.
Smith also suggests a focus on biblical literacy in schools, not to promote religious doctrine but to educate students about the Bible’s contribution to American history and thinking, such as the influence of the Ten Commandments on western law and U.S. government.
Smith self-published “Deicide,” which he hopes will be read by elected and appointed government officials, policy advocates and journalists, among others. The same groups who opposed RFRA will no doubt write it off as “right-wing religious screed,” as Smith himself predicts, but the book does all sides of the issue a service in telling the back story not reported in the media and placing it into a broader historic context of the relationship between church and state.
Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.