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Friday, March 03, 2023

Opinion Eric Adams wades into church-state quicksand

Opinion Eric Adams wades into church-state quicksand

Eric Adams. (Michael Nagle/Bloomberg News) 

“At an interfaith breakfast on Tuesday, New York Mayor Eric Adams (D) shocked many in the audience when he suggested guns came into schools when “we took prayers out of schools.” (One has to wonder whether any public official should really proselytize at such affairs.) It got dicier from there. Adams declared:

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. I can’t separate my belief because I’m an elected official. When I walk, I walk with God. When I talk, I talk with God. When I put policies in place, I put them in with a God-like approach to them. That’s who I am. And I was that when I was that third-grader, and I’m going to be that when I leave government. I am still a child of God and will always be a child of God and I won’t apologize about being a child of God. It is not going to happen.

Mind you, this was not a Republican presidential candidate straining to win the approval of evangelical Christians. This was the mayor of New York, one of the most religiously diverse and secular spots on the planet, echoing a viewpoint held by Christian nationalists who seek to make politics the agent of Christianity and Christianity the handmaiden of politics.

Adams was not going off-script. His remarks seem to represent his deeply held views. “The mayor’s closest aide, Ingrid Lewis-Martin, took the stage to declare that the Adams administration ‘doesn’t believe’ in the separation of church and state, characterizing the mayor of New York City as ‘definitely one of the chosen’ as she introduced him,” the New York Times reported.

The reaction was swift and fiercely negative (e.g., “unhinged and dangerous,” “speechless”). Civil libertarians took to Twitter to condemn Adams’s remarks: "So much for blue-city mayors upholding a fundamental principle of American society.”

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Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, tweeted: “These comments from @NYCMayor Adams are extremely troubling. We should expect our elected officials to govern without regard to religion and respect the institutional separation of church and state, which ensures religious freedom for everyone.”

An Adams spokesman, Fabien Levy, argued afterward that the reaction was overblown. “As the mayor said before an interfaith group comprising hundreds of representatives from a multitude of religions, you can’t remove the heart from the body. The policies we make as an administration are rooted in the mayor’s belief in the creator,” he said.

But that all misses the broader context. Adams’s remarks came at a time when a large segment of one of our major national political parties (and many of its most prominent elected leaders) has adopted the ethos of Christian nationalism, espousing the notion that America is not only a Christian country but one in which the state should enforce Christian values. This movement refuses to accept that America is a pluralistic state in which religion, race and ethnic origin do not determine who is a “real American.”

That view is a constitutional abomination. In protecting both religious liberty and prohibiting religious establishment, the Founders sought to avoid the sectarian strife that had engulfed Europe for centuries. They knew all too well that when political leaders co-opt religion, the results are alarming. (Recently, we’ve seen leaders in PolandHungaryBrazil and Russia cast themselves as defenders of the faith to wage war on “elites,” foreigners and religious minorities.)

The issue is not academic. American women have watched in horror as a partisan Supreme Court turned a sectarian principle (personhood begins at conception) into deprivation of constitutional rights. MAGA politicians across the country are deploying faith as the rationale for silencing LGBTQ voices and banning medical treatment for transgender youths. (In his plan to “rescue America,” Sen. Rick Scott of Florida declared: “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.’ ”)

Given these attacks on the American creed, New Yorkers have to be flabbergasted to hear their mayor proclaim: “Don’t tell me about no separation of church and state.” Adams’s alarming remarks can only give aid and comfort to right-wing Christian nationalists on the march, helping their odious effort to redefine America. New Yorkers certainly didn’t sign up for a mayor like this.

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