America’s Unhealthy Relationship With Religion
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America’s Unhealthy Relationship With Religion

The divide between church and state is crumbling. And the reason is all about power.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s rollback of Roe v. Wade, I am reminded of, among other things, a Swedish poem by Tomas Tranströmer called “The Half-Finished Heaven.” I’m not reflecting so much on the poem itself (short, taut, and a perfect distillation of what Tranströmer does best) as I am the title. I think I have always seen America as a vision, an aspirational state of being. It has never been totally democratic or totally just. I have always felt the two-way logic of that Martin Luther King, Jr. chestnut “No one is free until we are all free” deep in my gut. America has always just been free enough to put on a billboard.

The Roe v. Wade decision last Friday sets that reality in stone for anyone who hasn’t been getting the memos.

For my money, most discussions about the rollback of Roe v. Wade are already too narrow. In an attempt to dissect a constitutional right as powerful as this, a lot of people only talk about the decision in terms of abortions, as if this were a sex issue and not a far-reaching healthcare issue. Or they never mention how one in five men have been a part of abortions (that we know of), not to mention the educational and economic impacts of that statistic if it were upended by legislation like what we’re now facing all over the country.

We talk about this decision as if it were the resolution of an issue and not the beginning of something much larger.

If you think the Supreme Court was only concerned with abortions, you’re already leagues behind the front line. I have nothing against a measured and focused dissection of events, but I also know an opening gambit when I see one.

Conservatives—having stacked the Supreme Court with their avatars—have not merely blurred the line between church and state; they have erased it. A similar play was made in Monday’s decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton, in which the Supreme Court ruled that a Washington state football coach’s midfield prayers after high school football games was protected free speech. Last week, the court determined that the state of Maine could not exclude religious schools from a program that offers tuition aid for private education. Conservatives, having loaded the highest court in the land with ideological sycophants, are effectively amping up the legal ability to use religion in educational settings moving forward, public or otherwise. This, while allowing states to legislate against the teaching of actual history, which, if it isn’t clear, hampers actual free speech.

Religion as conservatives apply it is merely a wrench in the toolbox for what they’re really after, which is control.

The Washington football coach is instructive here. Former coach and Trump rally guest Joe Kennedy clearly cares about football, but his religious display isn’t about football. His passion play is not performed in the name of football, but God. To my knowledge, he did not make similar football-centered displays at church services. He was making religious displays at football services. And at least one student claimed to have felt compelled to participate, lest it affect his play time.

Hypocrisy is the number-one defensive play of conservatives. They’re not playing a religious game; they’re playing games with religion. Religion as conservatives apply it is merely a wrench in the toolbox for what they’re really after, which is control. And religion has been used this way since religions were created.

All of these decisions by the Supreme Court—as well as the legislation and arguments that enable and follow them—are an erosion of the wall between church and state. There is a lot of power to be mined from the vein of people’s faith, especially if you can convince them that their interpretation of what is right is more important than actual rights. There is a powerful othering quality to using religion in politics, so powerful that any attempt to point it out is seen as blasphemous. Mind you, conservatives and their ilk are some of the biggest hypocrites on the planet.

Roe v. Wade is not the end of a moment. It is the beginning of a movement. Chalk up my seeming paranoia to my existence as a Black person very familiar with the American experiment. In moments like these, Black Americans are a lot like the Kirsten Dunst character, Justine, in the movie Melancholia. Justine is a woman struck with bouts of crippling depression. When it is announced that the Earth will be destroyed on a collision path with an errant planet, everyone who is “normal” starts freaking out. By contrast, Justine becomes steadier and emotionally even-keeled as the world begins to literally crumble around her. She has symbolically always been preparing for the world to end because it ends for her all of the time. In the final moments of Earth’s existence, she is able to bring some solace to her family.

In the real world, Black people have been trying to convey the proper amount of alarm where White supremacy is concerned: how it should be defined, how it infects and affects every American, how it sits behind 99 percent of American politics, how it is no friend to even the people who benefit from it. In very concrete ways, we have been telling America this was not only possible, but coming—at least since Obama was president the first time. We said America wouldn’t stand for it, and that it would strike back from a place of consuming anti-Blackness. And when it comes to impact, Roe v. Wade is very much concerned with Black outcomes.  

We may be in uncharted territory as a country, but it is a road with signposts. We are not returning to a time we have suffered through before. Things for women will be historically bad, but it will likely be a different bad. There will be exceptional horror stories. One of the reasons many people think it won't or can't be the way it was before is because America has made us very comfortable with its oppressions. We thought Roe v. Wade couldn’t be unseated, too, that to do so would be so appalling that no politician would ever pull that trigger. And yet here we are, waiting for a nation of shoes to drop.

Some new kind of work must come from this development. The work that was being done up to this point to forestall such despotism was not enough. Voting was not enough. Arguing with anyone who thinks this is a good thing is mostly pointless. Good did not win here, and it’s okay to say that. It’s an enormous loss, with generational implications. Now the people who wish to keep fighting must figure out what people have done when they lost battles but remained at war. This may very well be the kind of loss that makes people examine the stakes people have been fighting for all along.

In the solutions column, we must acknowledge how many avenues already exist that have been in this particular fight that need support to move the needle on this issue once more. The temptation to build new things will be strong in the activist set, but the smart play is to get more involved and supportive of engines that are already running. That means everybody is going to have to do a little more homework than we’re used to. Less headline chasing, more organization mining. Who is doing the good work? Where are they and what do they need? Can they actually throw political hands?

As we march, kicking and screaming into another Fourth of July, remember that whatever you thought you were celebrating with all those state-sanctioned fireworks isn’t real. America was never the land of the free, and it has been made even less free now. What you’ve actually been celebrating is independence. And that’s a very different thing from being genuinely free. Ask the women who will bear the brunt of the burden of the fights to come. Ask the students who will be driven into behavior and ideas that make them less free. Ask the Black people who will suffer more and more under voter suppression. You have plenty of time to figure it out because they’re just getting started.