THE RESIDENTS of Belle Plaine, Minnesota, would probably like the world to think that the town’s population is 6,600 or 6,700, but according to the 2010 census (and as reported on the highway signs that mark the town borders), its actual population is 6,661. With a number like that, could it really be just a coincidence that this homey, homogeneous hamlet about forty minutes southwest of Minneapolis would have instigated a nationwide controversy over the First Amendment when it became the first city ever to authorize the erection of a Satanic monument on government property?
Yes. Yes, of course it’s a coincidence. But kind of a funny one, you have to admit, right?
It all started when the family of a veteran named Joe installed a small monument in Joe’s honor on the grounds of the peaceful Veterans Memorial Park a few blocks from what counts as downtown Belle Plaine. The monument is a black silhouette of a soldier kneeling before a cross. The whole thing is maybe two feet wide by two feet high, and if it hadn’t been for a resident of the town who had been harassed for her non-Christian beliefs in the past, the monument (which is widely known simply as “Joe”) would probably have gone unnoticed by anyone outside the town.
This resident, however, was offended that the town had placed a cross on public property, so in August 2016 she contacted the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), an Atheist activist group working out of Madison, Wisconsin, that over the years has aggressively brought legal actions to enforce its strict view of the separation of church and state. FFRF threatened the city with a lawsuit if it didn’t remove the cross from the monument, so the town—its coffers not exactly overflowing with cash for defending itself in federal court—ordered in January 2017 that the cross be removed.
Residents of the town—almost all of them white Christians—rebelled. Citizens gathered daily at the park holding flags and crosses. Many put two-dimensional cutout versions of Joe on the outsides of their homes to show support for the Christian monument. At a heated city council meeting in early February, more than a hundred citizens stood shoulder to shoulder, filling the cramped chambers of the city hall on Meridian Street to ask the council to revisit its decision. Referring to FFRF as a “cowardly out-of-state hate group,” a speaker representing the town’s veterans called for the council to create a “free speech zone” or “limited public forum” within the park where private parties, including Joe’s family, could erect monuments to honor the town’s veterans.
After some debate and reworking of the original proposal, the city council in February adopted a resolution creating an area inside the park measuring seven feet by three and a half feet for such displays. These memorials would be approved on a first-come, first-served basis without respect to their religious content and could remain in the zone for up to one year. Signs posted near the forum would explain that the displays within the zone were the expressions of private individuals and were not being endorsed by the city. Very soon after the creation of the free speech zone, Joe’s family returned the black silhouette monument in its original form, complete with the cross, to Veterans Memorial Park.
Creation of the free speech zone seemed to be enough to satisfy FFRF, but it also provided a new opportunity for a religious group headquartered in Salem, Massachusetts, known as the Satanic Temple. TST, as it’s often called, was founded by a group of Satanists a few years back and quickly gained a national reputation for some of its high-visibility activities, including its July 2013 “Pink Mass,” at which a bunch of gay and lesbian couples made out at the Meridian, Mississippi, gravesite of the mother of Fred Phelps, the leader of the horrific anti-gay hate group known as the Westboro Baptist Church. I will have a lot to say about TST later in the book, but for now the key thing to know about it is that one of its primary projects as an organization is to demand that the government treat all religions equally. In other words, if a city or town or state puts up a Christian monument on public property, then TST will insist that it put up a Satanic monument as well.
The Satanic Temple applied for permission to place a Satanic monument in the free speech zone at Veterans Memorial Park, and the city council, following the terms of its resolution, agreed, thus making Belle Plaine the first town in the United States to grant approval for a Satanic monument to be erected on public property. Perhaps the town thought it was just calling the Satanists’ bluff, but if that was the case, it severely underestimated TST’s resolve. The temple commissioned an artist named Chris Andres to design and build the monument and crowdfunded more than $12,000 to pay for it. The monument, which was completed in early summer of 2017, is a black steel rectangle measuring two feet by two feet by three feet, with embossed inverted golden pentagrams on each side and an upside-down soldier’s helmet, also made from black steel, on the top. According to Andres, the helmet was designed to be used as a kind of bowl, for families and others to place messages to fallen veterans.
Once the monument was complete, the only thing left to do was for TST and the town to figure out when it would be installed. As the citizens of Belle Plaine began to realize that Satan was in fact coming to town, though, concern began to mount. A group of Catholics planned a rosary rally against the monument to be held at the park in mid-July. According to Robert Ritchie, director of America Needs Fatima, the national Catholic group that helped plan the rally: “Every time the devil is accepted, mankind is the loser, because he’s only capable of doing evil. The more accepted he is, the more evil he will bring to us. And that’s why it’s important to pray against it.” Members of Minnesota’s Left Hand Path Community vowed to be present at the park on the same day to express their support for the contested monument.
Despite the controversy, TST continued to plan for the monument’s installation. Over the course of researching this book, I’ve gotten to know a few members of the group, in particular its cofounder and spokesperson, Lucien Greaves (whose real name is Doug Mesner). I contacted Mesner to find out if there were any concrete plans for moving the monument to Minnesota, so I could arrange to be there for the event, and he asked me if I’d be interested in helping to drive it there when it was ready. Really? Whoa! How exciting! I’d be embedded with TST like a journalist in an army unit during the Iraq War as one of the great moments in the nation’s religious history played out.
Yes, I said. Definitely yes!
* * *
“Separation of church and state.” It’s one of the venerable phrases of our democratic experiment, right up there with “freedom of speech,” “checks and balances,” and “alternative facts.”* Fleeing a despotic kingdom that had an official church, the framers of the Constitution were terrified of power overly concentrated in any one institution, and so they sought to separate religion and government in much the same way that they split power between the federal government and the states, or among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. In his 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, the most important document from the founding era on the virtues of separating church and state, James Madison wrote about the perils of government support of religion, claiming that taxing the public to support Christian teaching would threaten the conscience of nonbelievers, encourage political tyranny, and undermine the vigor of religion itself. And Thomas Jefferson, in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, coined the famous phrase, when he observed that the Constitution had built “a wall of separation between Church and State.” As a society, we have been debating just how high that wall should be ever since.
Despite its rhetorical appeal, the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear anywhere in the Constitution itself. Nor does the Constitution say much at all about the specifics of that separation. What the Constitution does say about religion is almost entirely contained in the first sentence of the First Amendment, which reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The first part of that sentence is referred to as the “Establishment Clause,” while the second is commonly called the “Free Exercise Clause.” Both parts are critical to the concept of separating church and state, but when it comes to limiting government support of religion, rather than limiting government regulation of religion, it is the Establishment Clause that plays the most important role. But figuring out exactly what the clause means and how it should be applied to the countless ways that government and religion can potentially interact in our complex and diverse modern society is no easy task. In our constitutional democracy, the authority to interpret and apply the Constitution falls primarily to the courts, and ultimately to the Supreme Court of the United States. Operationally, then, the specific contours of the “separation of church and state” in this country have been set by the Supreme Court, which has interpreted and applied the Establishment Clause in a string of cases beginning in 1947 and continuing to the present day.
There was a time, primarily in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Supreme Court took the Establishment Clause a lot more seriously than it does today. It placed stringent limits on government funding of religion, for example, and largely kept religion out of the public schools. Over the past couple of decades, however, the Supreme Court has etched a new path of church-state relations and the First Amendment. In a series of cases, the Court has either expanded religion’s right to access public money, property, and institutions, or it has confirmed what many hoped was religion’s right to access these things.
For example, in the 2001 case of Good News Club v. Milford Central School, the Court held that if a public school opens up its classrooms to after-school groups, it cannot exclude religious groups from using them, even if the groups are actively proselytizing young children. In 2002, in the case of Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the Court upheld a school voucher program that funneled millions of dollars to religious schools. The 2005 case of Van Orden v. Perry upheld the placement of a huge stone Ten Commandments monument right in front of the Texas State Capitol, and a 2014 case called Town of Greece v. Galloway held that town boards are free to begin their meetings with explicitly sectarian prayers. The nation’s Christian majority has pounced on these and other decisions, putting up Christian displays on public property all over the country, giving prayers before town board meetings in every state, proselytizing young kids with after-school clubs in elementary schools across America, and using tons of government money to fund their organizations. I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that the United States was ever really “separationist,” but if it was, then the nation we live in now—with a few exceptions here and there—is pretty much a post-separationist one.
Alongside these legal developments, though, the nation has been experiencing another important change, this one demographic rather than legal. In recent years, the United States has become less and less Christian. Quantitative evidence of such a shift is always subject to legitimate quibbling, but at least one scholar has estimated that 98 percent of colonists in the revolutionary period were Christians, and that number, according to regular Gallup polls, remained above 90 percent as late as the early 1970s. As recently as 2007, the Pew Research Center, which is probably the preeminent authority on the demographics of religion in the United States, reported that 78.4 percent of American citizens described themselves as believing in some sort of Christianity. In Pew’s 2014 comprehensive survey, however, that figure had declined to 70.6 percent. The nation is now more diverse than ever, with the share of Americans identifying with non-Christian faiths having risen to 5.9 percent at the time of that survey. Of particular interest is the number of people who describe themselves as not believing in God or a higher power at all. These “nones,” according to Pew, made up nearly 22.8 percent of the population in 2014; a more recent study, from the Public Religion Research Institute, puts the number at 25 percent. In short, with nearly three out of every ten Americans now describing themselves as non-Christian, we are living in an increasingly non-Christian nation.
These two developments raise the inevitable question of what non-Christians are to do in this post-separationist America. As a longtime Atheist who has studied religion and feels an affinity for many minority religious traditions, particularly Taoism, Buddhism, and others that originated far away from the United States,† I’ve been thinking about this question for a while now. Three major possibilities come to mind. First, non-Christians could continue to fight in the courts to limit or even reverse some of the Supreme Court’s anti-separationist precedents. Second, they could do basically nothing and go about their business, conceding that the fight for separationism is mostly lost and allowing the Christian majority to enjoy the spoils. Or finally, non-Christians could devote their energies to taking advantage of the Court’s precedents and demanding their rightful place in American public life alongside the Christian majority. After all, although the Court’s anti-separationist decisions all involve Christian attempts to access government money, property, and institutions, the Court has always maintained that the government must treat all religious views equally. If Christians can erect their monuments on public property and give invocations before town boards and run after-school proselytizing clubs and apply for government funding, then so too can non-Christians. Maybe that’s what Atheists and members of minority religious groups ought to be doing.
Although many non-Christians continue to fight for separationism in the courts and others are content to go about their own business (there are costs to being supported by the government, after all), an increasing number of Atheists and minority religious believers have, in recent years, begun to pursue the third option and are starting to demand their rightful place in public life. Atheists have given invocations before town boards. A small religious group in Utah that believes in mummification asked a local park to put up their “Seven Aphorisms” monument next to the Ten Commandments. Pagans demanded that the Veterans Administration allow the Wiccan pentacle on gravestones at national cemeteries. Islamic schools from Cleveland to North Carolina have participated in voucher programs and received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the government. Scientologists and Hare Krishnas have accepted funds from federal agencies to provide services to believers and nonbelievers alike. And Satanists have done everything from giving prayers before government bodies to asking towns for permission to install their monuments to creating after-school clubs to counter the efforts of aggressive Christian organizations.
The primary purpose of this book is to explain and explore this fascinating and important new phenomenon. In a series of chapters about religious monuments, sectarian displays, legislative prayers, government funding, and extracurricular activities in the public schools, I will detail both how the Supreme Court has largely torn down the wall of separation between church and state and how Atheists and other non-Christians have taken advantage of this post-separationist legal regime to participate in public life alongside the Christian majority.‡ I will also report on how the government and the Christian majority have responded to such demands by non-Christians. At times the response has been tolerant and even, occasionally, welcoming. But more often than not, the response has been distressingly hostile, ignorant, and hateful. Non-Christian displays have been torn down, invocations interrupted, requests for money met with disgust and hostility. Occasionally, the government has decided to exclude religion entirely from some public space rather than allow Christianity to share the stage with other religious and nonreligious views.
Most of my accounts and descriptions of events are drawn from public reporting, but I have also attempted, wherever possible, to travel and talk with key individuals and groups to learn as much as I could about their motivations. I watched an Atheist who had previously sued her town without success to stop it from allowing Christian prayers before its board meetings give a secular invocation in upstate New York, met with D.C.-area Wiccans who every Memorial Day hold small ceremonies at each of the eight graves marked with a Wiccan pentacle in the National Cemetery, and spent a weekend at a conference in Ohio learning about the movement to spread secular student groups on campuses around the country. I hung out with the quirky religious group called the Summum in its Utah pyramid filled with mummies and sat on the lap of a $100,000 bronze statue of a goat-headed figure named Baphomet that the Satanic Temple hopes someday to place on government property. In the course of my conversations and travels, I learned why Selena Fox and members of the Circle Sanctuary, her Wisconsin Wiccan community, felt so strongly about getting the Department of Veterans Affairs to allow those pentacles on National Cemetery graves. I traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina, to meet with Mussarut Jabeen, the principal of an Islamic elementary and middle school, about how school vouchers have helped her school thrive. And I spoke at length with Doug Mesner from the Satanic Temple about why his group believes it is crucial to demand equal access to government property and institutions. My goal in connecting with these people was always to learn why they fought to have their voices heard, how the fight affected them, and whether they think the fight was worth fighting. Their stories are surprising, fascinating, and inspiring.
Although the book is largely descriptive, it also advances an argument that I believe is extremely important, namely, that given the Supreme Court’s church-state jurisprudence, the trend I describe is one that those of us who value a diverse and pluralistic society should welcome, celebrate, and encourage. I will argue that non-Christians who want to participate in public life are right to push for access to the public square and should continue to demand their equal place there. In the six descriptive chapters of the book and a substantive concluding chapter, I will contend, for example, that non-Christians should insist on joining Christians in giving invocations before town hall meetings and the national legislature. They should fight to erect their monuments on public property next to the crosses and the Ten Commandments. They should run schools and compete for public voucher funding. They should take whatever opportunities they can to spread their messages in the public schools whenever Christians are doing the same. Only by insisting on exercising these rights can Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists, and everybody else ensure that the Court’s new religion jurisprudence does not result in a public space occupied exclusively by Christian messages and symbols.
At stake is nothing less than the future of our national public life. With more and more Americans claiming allegiance to minority religions and an increasing number of people embracing nonbelief as an affirmative alternative to religion, the United States currently stands at a critical juncture. The decisions that religious groups and public officials make now will shape the nature of the public square for years to come. Will public life continue to be dominated by Christian voices? Will the Christian majority decide that no voices are better than all voices, resulting in a public square empty of all religion? Or will minority religious believers and nonbelievers insist on their right to participate in public life alongside the Christian majority and find a majority willing to invite them in, thus creating a public square filled with voices of every type and stripe?
There are a number of reasons that a public square filled with the voices of all sorts of religious believers, as well as those of nonbelievers who have strong feelings about the questions traditionally addressed by religion, would be preferable to one dominated exclusively by Christian voices. For one thing, it would be more consistent with American ideals of inclusivity and freedom of speech represented by the First Amendment. As a nation, we have long been devoted to the idea that all citizens have the right to express their opinions, exchange ideas, and participate in public life. A public square filled with religious voices of all sorts better fits with this idea than the alternative does.
Second, the presence of a multitude of views on religious questions in the public square will help educate all Americans about the diversity of religious belief and practice that exists within the nation and around the world. If minority religious believers express their beliefs exclusively in private, how will others understand them? A person may not know anything about Druidism, for example, but if he or she sees a Druid give a prayer in public, or studies a lesson in school about Druidism, or even sees a monument put up by a Druid on public property, that person will know that Druidism exists in the community and will learn at least a little bit about what it means to be a Druid. The same goes for Hinduism or Islam. And I believe that the more we as a society understand minority religions, the more likely we are to learn to treat one another with mutual understanding and respect instead of with stereotypes, ignorance, and hatred. This is true not only here in the United States but also around the globe. Participating thoughtfully and meaningfully in international affairs requires an understanding of other people’s religions (how can we understand anything about the Middle East, for example, without understanding something about Islam?). It may be hard to see how erecting a Satanic monument in a public park might lead, however slightly, to a more peaceful world, but that’s exactly what I plan to suggest in this book.
* * *
Before diving into the details, I want to pause for a moment to address two big-picture issues—one a question, the other an objection—that have come up repeatedly as I’ve talked to people about this project over the past couple of years.
First, the question: When I say that “non-Christians” should demand access to public life, what do I mean by that term? Who is it that I’m talking about? The answer is this: Basically, I’m talking about any group of people who hold sincere beliefs about the fundamental nature of the world that happen to differ from those of the Christian majority. More specifically, though, I would like to highlight a few separate points.
Initially, I want to make clear that of course not all Christians are the same. There are many, many (many!) different varieties of Christianity. Catholics are not the same as Lutherans, who are not the same as Baptists, and so on. Moreover, the same denomination often encompasses different schools of thought and views about all sorts of different issues. Some Catholics believe women should be ordained as priests; others don’t. Some Protestants believe the world was created in seven days and the earth is flat; most don’t. Some Episcopalians believe that gay marriage is fine; others don’t. Finally, Christians vary in how seriously they take their faith, from evangelicals who actively proselytize to those who go to church only on Easter. Although I won’t focus on them in this book, if there are groups of Christians in the United States who hold minority views that they believe are underrepresented in the public square, by all means those groups should take advantage of the Supreme Court’s decisions on church and state as much as anybody else.
Second, Atheists and other “nones” are most definitely included. Atheism (and to be accurate, I should note that Atheism is hardly monolithic either—some people who do not believe in the existence of any divine being refer to themselves as “Freethinkers” or “Secularists” or “Humanists” rather than “Atheists,” and each category has its own nuances) provides answers to the same questions that Christianity attempts to answer, even if it answers those questions in a way that is radically different from the way that Christianity or most other religions answer them. Since this book is about people and communities that possess strong and sincere beliefs that differ from those of the Christian majority and would like to bring those beliefs into the public square, it would make no sense to arbitrarily exclude Atheists and other nonbelievers from the discussion. A public square that is truly inclusive on issues that are at the heart of Christianity must include views that deny or reject the core assumptions of religion as well as views that are religious but non-Christian. For instance, if the public square is to be inclusive on the question of who or what is the creative force behind the universe, it has to include as one alternative among many the notion that there is no such force whatsoever as well as the belief that there is a single god with a son named Jesus. Likewise, when it comes to ethics, why would we include alternatives to Christian biblical ethics from other religious traditions but not the Humanist notion that ethical obligations stem from the nature of being human itself?
Third and finally, although I will of course use the word “religion” (and other versions of the term) nearly constantly, nothing in the book’s argument turns on any kind of specific definition of what counts as “religion,” and therefore I will not advance and defend any particular definition of the term as authoritative. The point of the book, after all, is that the public square should include alternatives to Christian views, so it does not matter if those alternatives are in any technical sense “religious” or not.
This is a big load off my mind, I should admit, because trying to formulate a satisfying definition of “religion” is nearly impossible. For one thing, what kind of definition would we want? Legal? Anthropological? Sociological? Theological? Moreover, what most people think of as being “religious” simply defies simple definition. Seriously, try to define the term and see if you can come up with an acceptable formulation, one that captures all the belief systems you think are religious and excludes all those that aren’t. Should we define a “religion” as a belief system that has a certain content, like a belief in a Supreme Being? If so, then what about traditions, like Taoism, that lack such a being? Do we instead define “religion” as any belief system that fulfills a certain function in a person’s life, such as any belief that is a person’s “ultimate concern”? If so, then on what basis would we exclude from the definition something like the love of college football, which for some people might meet the same needs that Christianity does for a devout believer?
The Supreme Court, perhaps recognizing the difficulty of defining religion, has never done so, even though the word appears right there in the First Amendment. Lower courts, which sometimes have no choice but to come up with something, generally just say that a “religion” is any comprehensive belief system that addresses fundamental questions and that looks pretty much like what we think “religion” looks like—one with rituals, holidays, a system of ethics, sacred texts, officiants, and other characteristics of mainstream religions. In other words, they take a “we know it when we see it” approach. This type of analogical definition is hardly satisfying, of course, but in my view it is probably the best of the alternatives, and if I were pressed, it is the kind of approach to defining “religion” that I would adopt.
Okay, so that’s the question. As for the objection, it comes from hardcore separationists, generally people on the far left of the political spectrum who are deeply suspicious of religion, particularly of conservative strands of Christianity. These objectors suggest that there’s no way to have a truly pluralistic public square filled with lots of different religious voices because Christian voices will always dominate and squelch those with competing views. According to this position, the only acceptable solution is a public square that is almost entirely secular, one in which people do not rely on their religious views when making arguments about public policy, much less erect religious monuments on public property or pray before town board meetings.
The objection is exemplified by the reaction I got from a colleague who attended a faculty workshop where I presented an early version of the book. This colleague, who is ordinarily extremely thoughtful, fair, and scholarly, and with whom I am friendly, listened to my presentation and then when it was her turn to comment, declared, “I’m sorry, but I think this is insane.” Whoa! I mean, I know my work is deeply, deeply flawed, but is it really insane? When the laughter died down, my colleague explained that having grown up in a conservative part of the United States, she could not imagine how my proposed inclusive public square could possibly work. All non-Christian voices, she asserted, would be handily drowned out by those in the majority.
Fair enough. It is certainly possible that she, and those who agree with her, are correct. We won’t know if a healthy pluralistic public square is possible until we actually try to create one. Perhaps Christian voices will invariably dominate to such a degree that nobody else will ever be truly heard. Maybe instead of understanding and tolerance, a more diverse public square will simply result in more of the same—misunderstanding, indifference, even hostility. Perhaps things will become more chaotic in the short term, but more peaceful in the long term. Or vice versa. Although I will try to make the case throughout this book that there are good reasons to be optimistic, ultimately whether a healthy, pluralistic public square is possible is an empirical question that I simply cannot answer definitively in these pages.
But I will repeat here what I said to my colleague: The question of whether a public square filled with a cacophony of religious and nonreligious voices is preferable to a fully secular public square is simply irrelevant, because the Supreme Court has already rejected the possibility of a secular public square. Whatever the merits may be of a society in which religion and government are kept largely separate, such a society does not exist today in the United States and will likely not emerge at any time in the near future. Thanks to the Court, our society is one in which the government can support religion in all sorts of ways, including giving it boatloads of money and access to public property and institutions. Christians are already taking advantage of these decisions and have been for some time. Thus, the only question that really matters is whether a public square filled with a wide variety of religious and non-religious voices is better than one filled solely with Christian voices. And that, I believe, for anyone who cares at all about pluralism, is a question that answers itself.
Indeed, active participation by Atheists and other minorities in public life may ironically turn out to be the best hope for creating a secular public square in the United States. As we’ll see throughout the book, many predominantly Christian communities, when faced with demands by minorities to give invocations before local boards or to distribute religious materials in the public schools or to erect their own displays and monuments, have chosen to bar religious participation in public life completely rather than allowing minorities to participate alongside Christians. My argument in favor of minority participation in public life does not rely on this result—as I’ll explain more thoroughly in the book’s conclusion, I think that either an entirely secular or a religiously cacophonous public square is preferable to an exclusively Christian one—but I think its possibility should go some way toward satisfying those readers who can’t imagine any religiously clothed public square where Christian voices don’t drown out the voices of minorities.
When I first started working on this book back in 2015, the situation was not nearly as clear-cut as it is now. During that year, and throughout most of 2016, it looked possible, if not likely, that Hillary Clinton was going to win the presidency. Had that happened, Clinton would probably have been able to fill several Supreme Court vacancies with justices sympathetic to the notion of separating church and state. Had such a Supreme Court actually been put in place, it might have made more sense for non-Christians to focus their efforts on getting the law regarding government support of religion changed through litigation rather than on getting their voices heard in the public square. The question of whether a secular public square would be better than one filled with a variety of religious voices would have been an important one to address.
But of course, Hillary Clinton did not win the 2016 election. Donald Trump swept the Rust Belt and took the presidency in January 2017, essentially ending any chance in the near term for reversing the Court’s jurisprudence concerning the separation of church and state. Trump filled the seat left vacant by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death (and Mitch McConnell’s reprehensible, indefensible refusal to let Merrick Garland’s appointment come to a vote in the Senate) with Neil Gorsuch, who demonstrated his right-wing leanings within months of taking the seat. If any doubt remained about which way the Court would turn, Senator Susan Collins quashed it when she voted to confirm the far-right Brett Kavanaugh for the seat vacated by Justice Anthony Kennedy, despite the fact that credible claims of sexual assault had been leveled against the nominee. The chances that the Court will now reverse course on the Establishment Clause are basically zilch. With a constitutionally required secular public square out of the question, the only real alternative for non-Christians is to demand their rightful place alongside Christians in public life.
At the same time, though, Trump’s election and what it represents make the project that is at the center of this book more important than ever. Of course, it has never been easy to be a minority in the United States, but it feels harder now more than at any time in recent memory. Minorities of all kinds—whether with respect to race, gender, nationality, religion, or sexual orientation—have fallen under attack in Trump’s America. The president’s hateful actions and rhetoric have reverberated far outside Washington; hate crimes and hateful speech aimed at minorities have skyrocketed, as some Trump supporters feel vindicated by their president and freed to speak their minds. In such an atmosphere, it is crucial for minorities of all types, including religious minorities, to speak up against policies that would shut them out and to insist that they receive equal respect as citizens. The need for non-Christians to demand their rightful place in public life has never been more urgent.
* * *
So, did I get to help drive the Satanic monument to Minnesota? Did the Satanists end up erecting the monument in Veterans Memorial Park? Was the monument met with widespread rioting? Read on, and I promise you will soon find out.
* “Alternative facts” is not actually one of the venerable phrases of our democratic experiment.
† Just a little biographical note, in case you’re interested. I grew up Jewish, attending Hebrew School against my will until I was thirteen. It was early in high school that I first started identifying as an Atheist. I remember announcing this fact to my freshman English class, but then on the same day I broke my collarbone in gym class, so for a while there I kept my Atheism on the down-low. I was an East Asian studies major in college and wrote my senior thesis on a quirky Taoist sage named Chuang Tzu. Later I got a master’s degree in religious studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School. I would have pursued a doctorate in Chinese religions, but when I realized that my Chinese language skills were not really good enough to read a simple children’s story, much less decipher sophisticated ancient religious texts, I left grad school and took the LSAT.
‡ A quick but important definitional point: Obviously, religious groups can “participate in public life” in all sorts of ways, from taking part in debates about public policy to giving away literature to holding rituals and other activities in public areas like parks. In this book, however, I will use the phrases “participation in public life,” “participating in the public square,” “demanding a place in public life,” and similar formulations specifically to refer to taking advantage of the Supreme Court’s anti-separationist decisions on religious monuments and displays, legislative prayers, government funding of religion, and religion in the public schools to gain access to government money, property, and institutions.