Eric Adams Has a Point About Church and State
New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ heretical views on the “separation of church and state” sparked apoplexy on the left and confirmed the authoritarian impulse at the center of sexual liberation ideology.
Speaking at a Manhattan interfaith breakfast on March 2, Mayor Adams delivered some street-wise constitutional analysis: “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.”
Shocked by this apostasy, Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote that his “alarming remarks can only give aid and comfort to right-wing Christian nationalists.” Writing for the New York Times, Dana Rubenstein described the event as “surreal” and quoted a New York rabbi who called Adams’ statement “unhinged and dangerous.”
Hizzoner had unwittingly skewered a sacred liberal cow. When religious groups oppose same-sex marriage or abortion, they are accused of breaching the wall of separation. Although Adams holds progressive views on sexual and gender autonomy, he apparently hadn’t boned up on the indispensable role played by separationism in modern identity politics.
Rubenstein helpfully explained, “The phrase ‘separation of church and state’ is not in the Constitution, but the First Amendment’s statement that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’ has been widely interpreted to dictate such a separation.”
“Widely interpreted,” that is, by those who wish to ban unacceptable religious views from American public life. Separationism entered our public lexicon with Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter asserting a “wall of separation between church and state. The wall, he averred, prevented clergy from engaging in politics.
According to scholar Philip Hamberger, the separation idea garnered little support until later in the 19th century when Irish and other Catholic immigrants began to flood east coast cities, bringing with them the Mass and parochial schools. The wall of separation was adopted by nativist political parties and led to the 19th century Blaine amendments, designed to prevent state aid to Catholic schools.
Only in a 1947 Supreme Court decision, however, did the “wall of separation” enter serious constitutional discourse. Since then, numerous Court decisions have either endorsed or rejected versions of separation. In Lemon vs. Kurtzman (1971) the Court declared that the purpose of any state aid to religion must be primarily secular. In Carson vs. Makin (2022), it declared that state aid to secular schools may not be denied to religious schools.
The American left, however, has adopted separationism to claim that morally orthodox religious views in political life are both hateful and unconstitutional. According to Rubin, “American women have watched in horror as a partisan Supreme Court turned a sectarian principle (personhood begins at conception) into deprivation of constitutional rights.” Never mind that standard embryology textbooks teach that human life begins at conception.
“MAGA politicians,” she continued, are using religion as a justification for “silencing LGBTQ voices and banning medical treatment for transgender youths.” It is unclear why she believes LGBTQ voices have been silenced, and as for “medical treatment,” the necessity and wisdom of puberty blockers, castrations, and mastectomies for children and teens seeking to change their sex are, to say the least, not yet settled.
Rubin ended by identifying another highly offensive “sectarian principle,” this one expressed by Senator Rick Scott of Florida: “The nuclear family is crucial to civilization, it is God’s design for humanity, and it must be protected and celebrated. … Men and women are biologically different, ‘male and female He created them.’” Echoing a standard view of the American left today, Rubin wrote that such opinions constitute “attacks on the American creed.” According to this view, the Founders had such harmful “sectarian” views in mind when they separated religion and state by banning an establishment of religion.
Fortunately, that’s not at all what the Founders had in mind. Their ban on an established religion was designed to protect religion from government, not to separate religion from politics. Their goal was to prohibit Congress from creating a state-enforced religious monopoly, which would have increased the power of government, destroyed religious liberty, and endangered religion itself. The founders believed the presence of religion in public life was necessary for the success of the revolutionary Republic they were creating. Most spoke openly about the importance of religion to the nation, and to themselves.
John Adams wrote that “our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” James Madison declared that religion is a “duty which we owe the Creator.” The right of every man to perform the duty “as he believes to be acceptable to him” is both unalienable, and “precedent, both in order of time and degree of obligation, to the claims of civil society.”
The centerpiece of the First Amendment is the right of religious “free exercise.” The role of government is to safeguard religious exercise, as a fundamental human right given by God to every human being, as a source of morality and virtue, and as a limit on government itself. After two terms as president, George Washington told the nation that “political prosperity” depends on “religion and morality.”
So who decides critically important public issues like human life and dignity, marriage, and the meaning of sex? The body politic – including its religious citizens, communities, and ideas. The left would exclude the venerable ideas of natural law and inalienable rights recognized at the founding. They would do well to remember Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist minister writing from a Birmingham jail. He drew on St. Thomas Aquinas to remind the nation that “a just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.”
Adams was onto something important. “State is the body. Church is the heart. You take the heart out of the body, the body dies.” Surely even the left can agree that in America, we all have a voice, even the Church.
This article was originally published by RealClearReligion and made available via RealClearWire.