Many people maintain that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. One might say that the evidence for the claim wouldn’t hold up in a court of law, except that in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court (abetted by Congress and the executive branch) has willfully misconstrued the founders’ intent.
The horrible irony of the court’s decision to uphold a religious objection to the Affordable Care Act for for-profit companies is that it highlights the revolutionary parallels between Jesus and the authors of the U.S. Constitution.
When Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the temple, he was not restoring religion to a state of lost grace. He was upsetting more than 2,000 years of partnership between religion, the state, and commercial enterprise. Temple complexes were centers of worship and also warehouses for trade and repositories for wealth, usually the king’s (seldom the queen’s) because he represented, or was a manifestation of, god on earth.
Jesus also articulated a definitive separation of church and state, when he called on the Pharisees to “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
Christianity remained independent of the state until the early 300s, when the Roman emperor Constantine opportunistically converted to Christianity and became defender of the faith, a role taken up by all of his direct successors and a host of other Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant rulers.
Though not the first political leader to use religion as a tool of state, Constantine was the most important for Christianity. Following the example provided by his conversion, missionaries made it a practice to convert royals first because their subjects would then follow suit.
And a king was generally willing to convert because, as a ninth-century Dane put it, “a Christian people would more readily come to his aid and to the aid of his friends if both peoples were worshippers of the same God.”
This close identification of the church and state was a reversion to an ancient practice found across the Near East, Egypt, and Asia, and one that Jesus explicitly rejected. Not surprisingly, the idea of making secular and sacred authority inseparable was imitated by Islam, the Church of England, and other religions.
When the founders wrote our revolutionary Constitution, they were well aware that they lived in a religiously plural society quite unlike the mother country, Great Britain, which had a history of vicious persecution of Catholics, Jews, Separatists (Pilgrims), Quakers, and others.
The First Amendment’s establishment clause — “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” — was written with this in mind.
This is the first clause of the First Amendment because religion is the institution most susceptible to political corruption and the one least tolerant of the rights of free speech, the press, assembly and petition by people who worship a different god, or who worship the same god in a different way.
Burwell v.Hobby Lobby does not establish a religion. It does, however, put religious interests before the secular good of all Americans in a way the founders would find disgraceful.
And it enshrines the second-class status of women — something common to all major religions but repugnant to our country’s Constitution and values. Only women can use the four birth-control methods to which the plaintiffs object; the companies have no problem paying for condoms or vasectomies.
That the five conservative men who joined the decision are Catholics is no surprise to anyone familiar with the Catholic Church’s reactionary views on women, birth control, and political power.
As many critics have pointed out, it is unlikely that the court would have ruled as it did had the plaintiffs been companies closely held by devout Muslims. Nonetheless, the decision opens the door to religious exceptions to a wide variety of medical procedures, most ominously vaccinations against communicable diseases.
Thus the decision puts all Americans at risk, and undermines the separation of church and state enshrined in our Constitution more than 225 years ago.
The Supreme Court has taken a backward step toward making God and Caesar one in a ruling as decidedly un-Christian as it is un-American.
Lincoln Paine is a Portland-based historian. His latest book, “The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World,” won the 2014 Maine Literary Award for nonfiction.