By Prof. Mark Latham, Forum Contributor
Since our inception, we have struggled mightily with the separation of church and state. The ink was barely dry on our founding documents, for example, when President Washington issued a proclamation for us to acknowledge “the many and signal favors of Almighty God.” Every president since then, save Thomas Jefferson, has issued similar decrees urging us to our collective knees for prayer to the almighty.
A decade after revising the Pledge of Allegiance to assert that we were one nation under God, apparently to distinguish us from the godless communists, Congress adopted In God We Trust as our national motto. Today every penny, nickel, dime, quarter, and bill minted includes this overtly religious (and demonstrably nonsensical) phrase. In 1988, Congress further codified our belief in the supernatural when it recognized an annual National Day of Prayer.
For further evidence that the wall between church and state teeters towards collapse, consider Attorney General William Barr’s recent speech at the University of Notre Dame. During his Bible thumping revival tent oratory, Barr blamed literally every ill we face on “the force, fervor, and comprehensiveness of the assault on religion that we are experiencing today. . . . Secularists, and their allies among the ‘progressives,’ have marshaled all the force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia, in an unrelenting assault on religion and traditional values.” His prescription for a cure? A return “to the Judeo-Christian values that have made our country great.”
The government’s official recognition of a deity, and calls for even more god, is disconcerting for a number of reasons, but is particularly of concern because it leads to public policy decisions grounded in religion instead of decisions based on evidence and rational thinking. This concern came into sharp focus recently when the Trump administration prohibited scientists at the National Institutes of Health from conducting new fetal stem cell research.
Fetal stem cells have generated intense research interest because, unlike adult stem cells, which have become tissue-specific, fetal stem cells have not yet differentiated; that is, they are pluripotent. This means that they can be coaxed by researchers to develop into virtually any type of differentiated cell. Fetal stem cell research has deepened our understanding of biology, and it holds promise to develop breakthrough therapies for illnesses ranging from ALS to Zika. Indeed, it was fetal stem cell research that led to the development of the polio vaccine, and the near eradication of this once feared disease from much of the planet.
Despite opposition by hundreds of researchers, in June 2019 Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar prohibited government scientists from engaging in new fetal stem cell research. In the HHS statement announcing the ban, the Secretary even adopted the controversial “life begins at conception” position of the evangelical Christian anti-abortion movement: “Promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump’s administration.”
The ban also imposes another layer of bureaucratic review for requests to fund non-governmental fetal stem cell research. This additional layer of HHS review involves an ethics review board consisting of between 14 to 20 members. In a bizarre restriction, given that its members are to pass judgment on scientific research proposals, no more than half of the members of the board can consist of scientists. As further evidence that this effort to squash scientific inquiry is a sop to Evangelicals Christians, at least one member of the committee must be a theologian.
Religion, which is based on the unquestioned belief in a divinely inspired text and at least one deity, is grounded in faith and not evidence. As such, it is simply antithetical to science and its efforts to understand the natural world, which are based on the rigors of the scientific method and not adherence to blind faith and dogma.
We do need to build a wall, but not a longer, taller, and wider wall along our southern border. The wall we desperately need to build is an impenetrable wall between church and state, so that science can flourish and we can Make America Smart Again.