We find ourselves at a perpetual crossroads with religious radicals bent on enforcing their one true belief through the apparatus of law and government. There are many compelling arguments against the unification of Religion and State. I’d like to explore the rhetorical angle. How our movement towards a theocracy impacts how we percieve ourselves, religious organizations, our government and the world.
Perception is the key to action, and a well grooved path for people to follow can make the most innocuous act appear as bedrock. Take swearing on the Christian Bible in court or during official swearing in ceremonies for example. This is an overtly religious act and yet one perceived as a social norm. Thus when Keith Ellison was sworn into office on a copy of the Quran, not only did it cause a stir, it was viewed as out of the ordinary. His savvy approach entailed using a Quran that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson, but we can still see the frame that surrounded the act. Using a holy text that was not in the approved set of religions (Christianity and Judaism (the latter is a more complex case)) immediately became an intensely unpatriotic thing to do. All of this from one little act. And act ingrained in law and tradition.
The more our laws and customs gravitate towards the religious (and towards favoring one religion over another), the more doors open. The theory of the Overton Window essentially suggests that by entering a discussion to the extreme of one’s goals, it becomes possible to shift that discourse so that one’s goals become more and more likely. Applying this theory to political discourse can be an illuminating exercise (and a very effective strategy). Taking a step back and looking critically at our enshrined rules and behavio, then applying the overton window provides a very sobering picture of the Church vs State debate. The battle over religious freedom in this country (including freedom from religion) is fought in the anti-fornication laws, dildo legalizations, gay rights, and reproductive rights legislation across this country. This is the foundation of that conflict, where the rhetorical window shifts and determines what is possible.
This paints a far more volatile picture of religious politics in this country. Take Gay Marriage. A new state law to allow civil unions and grant some (but not all) benefits to domestic partners is not a conclusion. It is not a stable law where anti-homosexual bigots and human rights activists meet in the middle with a compromise. It is the pin of a needle, where that same law can either push gay marraige and equal rights into the discourse of the possible or leave the door open for deeper intrusions of Church into State. Every piece of legislation and every public act is a rhetorical act. Every rhetorical act shifts the overton window.
With each shift in that window we view the world differently. Fighting for equal rights for non-straight couples becomes something we consider in decades rather than years in some states. I know that’s the case in Virginia, which to my great shame passed a law aimed at restricting Gay rights even at the expense of reduced protection for victims of domestic violence. I can’t imagine how it must feel to live in Virginia and know that a majority of the residents there would rather see women, children and men physically abused rather than allow gay people to have some of the benefits afforded married couples.
The impact of a shift in the Overton window goes beyond legislation to our ability to get motivated, organize, and affect change. In the struggle to keep Church and State from dictating our laws and our rights, we therefore must attend to the intricacies and rhetorical repercussions of speech and actions. This means pushing for ever bolder separation of Church and State, allowing ourselves to argue a fully secular government into the realm of the possible. It also means working to make that ideal be seen as more concrete and reachable. Doing everything from exploring the benefits of separating Church and State to tackling the smaller laws and habits that combine the two. This will open up our possibilities for a truly secular society while closing the doors to a theocratic one.