Belief in the separation of church and state has turned out to be situational, depending on what issue you want the government to highlight or ignore — abortion rights or aid to the poor, criminal justice reform or same-sex marriage — and which faith you favor.
This is a time of year that challenges that not-so-bright line, no matter what side you fall on, when the occasional (or non) worshipper nevertheless is drawn by devotion, guilt or nostalgia to traditions that otherwise are pushed aside.
And the lessons of the season for those of any or no faith can be worthwhile.
That goes for lawmakers, many of whom dutifully made the pilgrimage home and attended services with God, family and perhaps politics in mind since Americans are more comfortable with leaders who align with some faith (whether or not they strictly adhere to the rules).
This is also the week that marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, a victim of the gun violence that is a continuing part of the national conversation. King had traveled there to support sanitation workers striking for a living wage and safe working conditions, marching with signs that stated a demand too few were willing to grant: “I Am A Man.”
In an echo, teachers from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Arizona stand with parents and students today to make their own case for economic justice.
Watch: D.C. Residents and Visitors Remember MLK Jr. 50 Years Later
Taking a stand
King was someone who merged his message with the words of biblical Scripture and the words in the secular yet sacred documents America also revered, from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to the laws that enshrined their principles.
He was praised and vilified when he broadened “love your neighbor” to mean those of all races and nationalities, and linked the idea of equality to concrete results, in housing, work, justice — and humanity.
That these issues still resonate and divide speaks to the influence of King and those who came before and after, who would not let the “dream” die, as well as the resilience of opposition that saw and sees America as a tribal battlefield and “rights” as zero-sum.
King challenged those ministers who advised civil rights activists to go slow or condemned their decision to break society’s unjust and immoral laws. One can see many of the spiritual and literal descendants of those hesitant faith leaders still resisting, and laying supportive hands on a president who uses his White House pulpit to stoke racial grievance and turn a blind eye to calls for justice on issues from health equity to police accountability.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development, led by Secretary Ben Carson, proposes eliminating the phrase “free from discrimination” and the word “inclusive” from HUD’s mission statement, and pulling back from enforcing fair housing laws, actions encouraged by the Fair Housing Act, hastened and passed soon after King’s death.
The rollback of environmental regulations under Scott Pruitt’s EPA promises additional hardships for minority neighborhoods that already suffer disproportionately from pollution and the resulting poor health outcomes.
President Donald Trump’s fact-challenged Easter morning message — “NO MORE DACA DEAL” — and his desire for congressional Republicans to pass tough immigration legislation conflated the plight of those brought to the United States as children (whom polls show a majority of Americans support) with admittedly complicated immigration policies and a border wall promise he returns to when his other problems overwhelm the news cycle. (It was a far cry from the phrase inscribed, in English and Spanish, on my church bulletin: “Your presence today is a blessing.”)
Yet the president followed it days later with an official White House proclamation that honored King the martyr, not the fighter whose poll numbers only ticked upward when viewed through the sanitized lens of history.
“We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters lest we perish together as fools,” Trump’s statement read. “As a united people, we must see Dr. King’s life mission through and denounce racism, inhumanity, and all those things that seek to divide us.”
The president’s next words — that “it is not government that will achieve Dr. King’s ideals, but rather the people of this great country who will see to it that our Nation represents all that is good and true, and embodies unity, peace, and justice” — turn the hard work inward, missing King’s demand that America’s laws must work for everyone.
What is called the Easter break, even if your tradition is not the Christian one, can be a chance to reflect. The story of the last days, death and resurrection of Jesus — as God or prophet — is full of examples of bravery and cowardice, of officials who wash their hands of the hard decisions, of friends who commit acts of betrayal, and of strangers who take a chance because it is the right thing to do.
It is a narrative with clear heroes and villains and more nuanced characters, those who hesitate when called on to make a moral stand. In that way, the story is a political metaphor for today’s leaders who must decide when and how to speak up or stay silent.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.