S4, Ep. 15: Eric Adams, CPAC and Christian nationalism

Get a complete breakdown of recent comments from New York City Mayor Eric Adams that seem to conflate different takes on the separation of church and state.

Mar 9, 2023

From New York City Mayor Eric Adams to several individuals at CPAC, we’ve recently heard new, troubling comments from public leaders that show – once again – the prominence of Christian nationalism and the dangers it poses to public debate. Amanda and Holly provide some “Separation of Church and State 101” in this episode to clear up confusion about the term and what it really means. They also share examples of people working together across ideological divides to combat Christian nationalism.


SHOW NOTES
Segment 1: Troubling comments from New York City Mayor Eric Adams (starting at 00:51)

We played two clips from this speech Mayor Eric Adams gave at an interfaith breakfast. The first clip begins at 51:31 in the video, and the second begins at 44:36.

Read the full response from Rachel Laser, CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, at this link.

Read Amanda’s Tweet in response to Mayor Adams here. It also appeared in this column from Jennifer Rubin for The Washington PostEric Adams wades into church-state quicksand.

Watch Mayor Adams on CNN’s State of the Union with Dana Bash at this link.

 

Segment 2: Concerns from CPAC (starting at 12:56)

See video of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s remarks at CPAC in this Tweet from Religion News Service reporter Jack Jenkins.

Amanda and Holly mentioned this photo essay from The New York Times on CPAC, with words by Jane Coaston and photos by Damon Winter. 

Amanda quoted this Tweet from conservative commentator Bill Kristol on the remarks from Michael Knowles at CPAC.

Amanda denounced Michael Knowles’ call for the elimination of transgenderism in this Tweet.

 

Segment 3: We don’t have to agree on everything to work together (starting at 24:59)

Amanda mentioned attending the Principles First Summit. Learn more at this link.

Learn more about BJC’s Christians Against Christian Nationalism campaign and check out resources on the campaign’s website

Amanda and Holly mentioned this book by Dr. Paul Miller: The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism

 

Respecting Religion is made possible by BJC’s generous donors. You can support these conversations with a gift to BJC

 

Transcript: Season 4, Episode 15: Eric Adams, CPAC and Christian nationalism (some parts of this transcript have been edited for clarity)

 

 Segment 1: Troubling comments from New York City Mayor Eric Adams (starting at 00:51)

AMANDA: Welcome to Respecting Religion, a BJC podcast series where we look at religion, the law, and what’s at stake for faith freedom today. I’m Amanda Tyler, executive director of BJC.

HOLLY: And I’m general counsel Holly Hollman. Today we’re going to talk about some troubling comments from a variety of public leaders that show, once again, the prominence of Christian nationalism and the dangers it poses to public debate and the health of our country.

AMANDA: Holly, as our listeners know, we at BJC and Respecting Religion have been studying and talking about Christian nationalism and how it threatens religious freedom for all for several years. And we note when politicians and office holders use Christian nationalism in their rhetoric, and this kind of rhetoric comes from politicians of both parties.

But even knowing that, I think we were especially surprised to see the Democratic mayor of New York City, Eric Adams, make some of these comments and then to see his response to the response of those comments. And so we thought it was worth a conversation here today.

HOLLY: And you say especially surprised because he is the mayor of one of the largest cities, one of the most diverse cities where you would think there’d be an appreciation for religious diversity and principles that unite us, despite our religious differences.

AMANDA: So it all started with a speech he delivered on February 28 at an interfaith breakfast, and we are just going to play clips of the mayor’s speech here.

MAYOR ADAMS: (audio clip) 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. (Applause.)


I can’t separate my belief because I’m a 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.

 

AMANDA: In the same speech, he said:

 

MAYOR ADAMS: (audio clip) You know, when I was growing up in South Jamaica, Queens, I was learning how to box, and every time I would get in the ring, I would lose the fight. And my trainer would say, Eric, the problem is you leave your best fight in the gym, and you’re supposed to take it into the ring with you.

 

And that is what has happened to many of us. The synagogue is the gym. The church is the gym. The Sikh temple is the gym. The mosque is the gym. You are there for training. You’re not there to leave your best worship in the gym, because if we are bringing our best fight in the ring, we would not have homeless in this city. We would not have a crisis of domestic violence. We would not have children ‑‑ because when we took prayers out of schools, guns came into schools.

 

So the reflection point of today, when we do an analysis of these annual coming-together, is to state, Are we leaving our best fight in the gym?

 

HOLLY: Well, as our listeners can pick up on, this was a wide-ranging speech of a lot of different kinds of comments — kind of a little bit hard to follow exactly where he’s coming from, but not surprisingly, it got a swift response.

AMANDA: Yeah. As church-state separationists, like our friend Rachel Laser of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, issued a very quick and strong response, expressing deep concern about the mayor’s comments, and also, I think, providing some important educational information about what exactly the separation of church and state is and why it protects religious freedom for all Americans, for all of Mayor Adams’ constituents, and that that does not call him to negate his personal faith in any way.  I think that was important, because it was quite confusing, the way that he mixed concepts in that speech.

HOLLY: That’s right. There was a lot of outrage, and it is an opportunity for people to clarify what separation of church and state means and how it is that we have a country that is dedicated to religious freedom and how that separation of the institutions of religion and government actually protect our religious freedom.

And, Amanda, I saw you responded on Twitter, saying that, “These comments from Mayor 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.”

And I was delighted to know that The Washington Post picked that up — Jennifer Rubin in her column reporting on this event — as many people had lots of different concerns, and the conversation about this went in a lot of directions which led to then more conversation with Mayor Adams.

AMANDA: Right. People asked him, Well, do you believe in the separation of church and state? People like CNN’s Dana Bash, who asked him on the weekend program State of the Union, and he said in response, no, but then went on to say that government should not interfere with religion and religion should not interfere with government, which is itself just a restatement of the principle of separation of church and state.

So I think that in some ways Mayor Adams himself may be confused about what separation of church and state means, and I think if I were in his position and were confused about that, which I’m not, I would take it upon myself to learn about the issue ‑‑

HOLLY: (Laughing.) That’s right!

AMANDA: — and correct the record, because he is in such a prominent position.

HOLLY: He is. And I don’t know that that’s what he’s doing. In fact, the more I looked into this story, the more confusing I think it was about exactly what he was trying to communicate. And I don’t think I’m the best person to really figure out what his motives are, what his intent is. And it may be very mixed, as often political motives are or, you know, other motives are if you’re concerned about correcting some problem or you’re just expressing your faith and how you feel.

But regardless of what he intended and what his motives are, he was saying some things that are problematic, that confuse people about the actual situation in America, the actual way that religious liberty is protected, the actual way that people of all faiths or no faith have the right to come to the public square and to advocate in the public square, and the common concern among citizens without regard to religion about important problems facing our country and, I’m sure, his particular city.

So kind of putting aside what his motives were, I think his comments reflected some common misunderstandings, misperceptions about religious freedom that are worth us talking about here on Respecting Religion.

AMANDA: Absolutely. These are the kinds of conversations and education that we hope to provide on Respecting Religion. So let’s do, Holly, a little Separation of Church and State 101.

HOLLY: Sure. The words “separation of church and state” are not in the First Amendment which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” But the concept of institutional separation is there as a limit on government.

And it’s often ‑‑ that language, “separation” — is often used as a shorthand for our arrangement that recognizes some distance and some differences between the institutions of religion and government, not that there is total separation and no interaction, certainly not that there is some kind of limit on faithful people being involved in the government. So that’s just ‑‑ that’s totally false and a real problem for someone to say that. So that’s number one.

Second, he tried to blame this major problem that we have in America with gun violence on the lack of prayer in public schools, and that’s maddening. And I’ve been at this work a long time, and I’ve seen that argument made through the years. Whether it was about stopping and reducing teen pregnancy or drug use or any number of social ills, people can say, The problem is we took prayer out of the schools.

Of course, no one took prayer out of schools. No one could do that, but took, instead, away any right for the government itself to write prayers, to lead in religious exercises in this coerced environment of public schools. So that was a really maddening comment. Maybe it’s a cheap throwaway, but it’s one that’s really offensive, given the extreme problem that we have with gun violence in our country.

And I would say that people from so many different religious traditions pray. They pray for the victims of gun violence. They pray for our political leaders, that we could have commonsense, agreeable reform for our gun laws, things that we can agree on, and we pray for changed hearts and the end of violence. And we have all of that important calling to prayer for those who pray and others who want to come together. And so to just say that there’s an easy answer, I think, is really demeaning, both of the act of worship and prayer, as well as the hard work of stopping a severe social problem.

AMANDA: Let me just say, Amen, to everything ‑‑

HOLLY: Yeah, I did kind of get preachy there.

AMANDA: — that you just said. Absolutely.

HOLLY: Yeah. (sighs) Well, you know, he turned on his preacher voice, which, you know, can be an attractive thing for a political leader to have, but you want it to make sense and be true to their position and what they’re advocating. And, anyway, that was a second real problem with his speech.

And then lastly ‑‑ and I’m not sure if it came across as much in this clip as in other times that he was speaking ‑‑ is this idea that somehow he was particularly chosen by God to lead. And, you know, any politician could say that, and it’s a very dangerous idea to believe.

AMANDA: Right. Everyone can have a sense of personal calling to whatever vocation that they are engaged in, but to send that signal or to have your senior adviser, who in this case is a chaplain, Ingrid Lewis-Martin, make that claim sends this signal that it is God’s choosing and not the people’s choosing, which, of course, in a democracy, it is the people who are voting for members, not a higher power.

And that sends a confusing signal about the secular nature of our government versus a vibrant and interfaith religious character of the people, in the sense that that government is governing without regard to religion, which sending that confusing signal, that signal of Christian nationalism, is a violation of religious freedom principles and also harms liberal democracy in this case.

HOLLY: Exactly.

 

 

Segment 2: Concerns from CPAC (starting at 12:56)

HOLLY: Well, that incident from Mayor Adams was, you know, kind of ‑‑ it was surprising. It came out of nowhere. It really inspired a lot of conversation. We hope that on reflection, that he will tamp down these bad ideas, maybe learn a little bit and distance himself from that, especially because we know it reflects and sounds a lot like some other very dangerous rhetoric we’ve been hearing, really in the heart of the Christian nationalism movement in our country.

So while we were surprised to hear this come out of New York City in this way, we were on guard, looking for it, listening for it in other places where it was a little bit more expected.

AMANDA: Right. Christian nationalism, this political ideology and cultural framework that tries to merge our identities as Americans and Christians, is something that we have seen often at CPAC, this conservative conference that is held once a year right outside of Washington, D.C., and we have also heard it quite a bit from Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who herself claims the identity as a proud Christian nationalist last year and urged the Republican Party to become the party of Christian nationalism.

She very much is on the vanguard, leading edge of Christian nationalism in the United States today and given that status, was featured at CPAC and gave more of what we have come to expect in her speech to that group. In her short speech, she talked a lot to the crowd about “our God” and said that because of God, we will get bills passed, again infusing the sense of God is on our side and that if you aren’t believing in the same kind of God that she is, that you’re not really fully part of this American people, for whom she, again, has been elected to represent and uphold the Constitution for all people.

HOLLY: Yeah. Really a fringe understanding, I think, of God in general as so many people in America worship God in a variety of different ways.

AMANDA: We also heard this Christian nationalist rhetoric from Kari Lake, a failed gubernatorial candidate in Arizona, who gave some of her own personal calling story and then urged the crowd there to see themselves as being called to this moment, saying that God has put us here for a reason and comparing them to the revolutionary patriots and saying that it is we, the people, versus the globalists. So, again, this is a lot of coded Christian nationalist language that is urging the crowd to see God as on their side and everyone else as anti-God.

HOLLY: Yeah. It’s not very coded, pretty explicit. But reminding me that she had a prominent place on the agenda does remind us that CPAC is not the conference of ideas that it once was thought to be among conservatives, mostly Republicans, and instead, has really become — as I understand it from the reporting — a big cheerleading event for Donald Trump.

And so I think what we see there is the hardcore, still substantial group of people coming to town, really devoted to former President Trump, not really focused on conservative ideas or even good political ideas that we can have a debate about; but instead, really kind of this movement of fidelity to the former president, a lot of election denialism, Christian nationalism, and a lot of really disturbing ideas that I know a lot of people want to distance themselves from.

AMANDA: That’s right. And there was a photo essay in The New York Times with text from Jane Coaston which we will link in show notes that gives a literal picture of what ‑‑ or many pictures of what this Trump rally really looked like.

So I think on one hand we could just dismiss this as a Trump campaign event and ‑‑

HOLLY: Right.

AMANDA: — But, as you noted, this is still a sizeable piece of the Republican Party, and it also became a place for spreading really, I believe, dangerous ideas. And the most dangerous idea that I saw coming out of that conference was from conservative political commentator Michael Knowles who was given a platform and who used his few minutes on the CPAC stage to say that, “There can be no middle way in dealing with transgenderism. Transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.”

And I want to just quote first here from Bill Kristol, who is himself a political conservative commentator, who said, “Just to be clear, this is not about perhaps complicated questions of parents and schools or certain medical treatments for minors, nor is this ‘mere’ bigotry. This is eliminationism. Will any Republican politician or any prominent conservative in good standing denounce this?”

Well, Holly, I am neither a Republican politician or a prominent conservative, but I denounced it on Twitter, because I see this as dangerous rhetoric and as a genocidal comment. You know, there is no such thing as transgenderism, so what you’re doing here is first dehumanizing people ‑‑

HOLLY: Right.

AMANDA: — by turning it into an -ism, and then by calling on this crowd to eradicate it, which means eliminate it from our society. And we cannot ignore comments like these.

HOLLY: Right. And I appreciate, again, a nice concise tweet that points out the problem and calls on people to, you know, shut that down, because there’s really no place in our political discourse for that kind of language on issues ‑‑ even on issues that people care very much about and that people have strong differences about.

And when I listen to that, it is so not only, you know ‑‑ what’s worse than dehumanizing? It was such a horrible comment, and then in the middle of it, he says, “It is false, and if it is false, we should not indulge it.” I would say, Amen, to those who would like to take up the mantle of Christian voices in the public square. If it is false, we should not indulge it, and ‑‑

AMANDA: By that you mean, Holly, just to be clear, if something is false ‑‑

HOLLY: Exactly.

AMANDA: — then ‑‑ and there are a lot of false things being spread at CPAC.

HOLLY: Exactly. In fact, I think the central point of CPAC, as that photo essay shows and a lot of reporting has shown, is that the false idea that Donald Trump won the election and people’s adherence to that belief. So I think it’s worth pointing out these most dangerous comments and ensuring that people can distance themselves from that, can shut that down. It’s certainly as many harsh disagreements as we have in our country, that we don’t need to raise not only the volume but the threat in a way that could do such dangerous harm to people.

Another problem with this kind of extremism is that it wasn’t just a platform for — I don’t know, however many people in a conference room, you know, to feel good about their sense of victimhood or their outrage about things that they disagree with, but it also inspires people to go out and think that they’re going to correct it in dangerous ways.

One thing that I saw that really bothered me about this was a video of a man, walking around, clearly in town for CPAC — must have not stayed down at National Harbor where the conference was, but ventured out into Northern Virginia and to the suburbs, and he put a video of himself, walking in a residential area around the perimeter of a house of worship, wearing a hat and T-shirt that says he was “Ultra MAGA.”

Of course, I did not know of all the varying degrees of MAGA-ness, but not surprising that in that movement there’s a competition for who’s the most or the best dedicated to these ideas. But walking around a church that had signage that showed that it was a welcoming and affirming church, a church that would welcome all people.

And he taped himself, saying that this is what’s wrong with our country, calling the church’s welcome “garbage,” and said that that’s the problem with America, and that this is a problem that we see as contaminating our schools, our businesses everywhere, and that real God had been taken out of society and that’s the problem with these so-called “churches.”

Okay. So this is someone walking around, pointing to a house of worship as the problem, you know, which I think is very alarming and inciting — could be inciting, you know, toward other religious voices. And I think it just shows the dangerousness of this Christian nationalism, the real threat. It was alarming.

And, of course, we know that it’s not something that happens just to Christian churches but something that more often has targeted synagogues and other minority religious gatherings. But it’s something that is just a fundamental threat to the religious freedom that is core to our identity as America.

AMANDA: And that idea that one can worship in their house of worship without fear of violence is a core idea of religious freedom for all. When that sense of safety in our places of worship is threatened, we really don’t have strong religious freedom. And I think in that example of seeing violence right here in our city, when the Proud Boys vandalized and burned Black Lives Matter signs outside of Metropolitan AME Church just a few blocks from the White House back in December of 2020, and know that this violent rhetoric ‑‑

HOLLY: Can lead to real violence.

AMANDA: — can lead to real violence.

HOLLY: Well, we are glad that that conference ended, but we know that the problem persists and that we have a lot of work to do to make sure that people understand America’s religious freedom that protects all of us in our religious differences and our political differences, and that we have to fight that dangerous ideology, so that we can be that religious freedom country that we aspire to be.

 

 

Segment 3: We don’t have to agree on everything to work together (starting at 24:59)

AMANDA: Well, Holly, you and I just read about CPAC. We were not in the room, but we did go to another conference in Washington this past weekend, the Principles First Summit, a group of conservatives — self-avowed conservatives, but people who are not for Trump and are not for the misinformation and attacks on democracy that the people at CPAC were continuing to peddle.

And I was really pleased to be invited to speak to this conference on a panel about church and state, and specifically on the threat of Christian nationalism, and had a really great experience in this group of having people really seem to agree with the principles that we talk about at Christians Against Christian Nationalism and to find common ground — even across theological, ideological, political differences — about finding common cause to counter Christian nationalism.

HOLLY: Yes. It was very heartening to learn about this conference and to see that they had a couple days’ agenda with a variety of panels with lawmakers, former lawmakers, journalists, talking about the need to protect democracy, really standing up and taking a hard line against the excesses of Trumpism, the election denialism.

There were panels talking about American Institutions and why they matter, you know, going against this idea that you can just burn it all down and follow an authoritarian kind of figure; panels on American elections as a pillar of democracy. Truth and Order: Keeping the Peace After January 6th really focused on how we have to be united together to make sure that nothing like that happens again.

And then, of course, the panel that you spoke on, Church and State: Finding Faith in America, was a great opportunity to just see people of good will and political differences — as you said, religious differences — that recognize the threat that Christian nationalism is to our country. So I appreciate you being there and speaking.

I appreciated the audience, and all of those people who are willing to serve and working to serve and looking for good candidates, knowing that they do so at a difficult time. It’s sometimes a dangerous time. But they seemed brave and strong in what they wanted for America, knowing that there’s a lot of disagreement about policies in our civic life right now.

AMANDA: Some notable differences I saw from that firsthand experience and from reports from CPAC, one, was the way that our panel was introduced. The host, Heath Mayo, acknowledged, first, that not everyone in the audience was a Christian or even a person of faith.

HOLLY: Right.

AMANDA: And that is such a marked difference from the speakers at CPAC who just assumed that everyone there had the same theological beliefs that they did. And so acknowledging that religious pluralism from the outset and then also saying why this topic was important to everyone was, I thought, a very important stage-setter.

It happened that all four people on the panel, on our panel, were Christians, specifically white Christians, and so we were all coming from generally a similar faith background, although we have theological and ideological differences between us. But we were able to model that bringing our faith-based selves into the public square on this panel and talking about how Christianity is distinct from Christian nationalism to ‑‑ in my case, I quoted from a Scripture that seemed to be relevant to the question that was posed to me. So there are ways to, again, bring faith into the conversation without straying into Christian nationalist rhetoric.

HOLLY: I think that was very helpful, and as our listeners know, Amanda, you’ve done quite a bit of speaking on behalf of Christians Against Christian Nationalism as a leader in that movement, and we’re used to talking about Christian nationalism as a threat to religious freedom for all, faith freedom for all, which, of course, BJC has been fighting for for decades. And so we rely on these basic principles to bring people into the conversation, to have their appreciation and understanding of our religious freedom tradition, to then fight Christian nationalism.

But the other panelists come to it from other ways of thinking about this, from their different perspectives, including Paul Miller who’s an academic voice and has written a very good book against Christian nationalism. And the thing that struck me most about his comments that I really appreciated and are consistent with the way we talk about them but not something that we have emphasized so much and that is the patriotism point and the importance of patriotism to most Americans.

We know that in Christians Against Christian Nationalism, we warn against the confusion of patriotism being taken to a point of nationalism, but it was really helpful to hear the way Paul Miller spoke about not at all ceding patriotism to those that would do harm to our country through Christian nationalism. He said that part of what makes him feel patriotic and something that I certainly could share is being grateful for our country. And, of course, part of that gratefulness is to be in a country where we get to live out our faith and express our faith without fear of differences and fear from the government.

AMANDA: And that was an authentic expression of patriotism for him, and he is the perfect person to provide it, because he himself served in the military. I have gotten to know him some through learning about Christian nationalism and how that military service during wartime was very meaningful to him. And so that felt like a perfect way for him to express that value, that principle at this Principles First conference.

You know, Holly, I have often said Christian nationalism is too big of a problem for just one group or one demographic to take this problem on.

And so we think it’s vital that there are a variety of voices working from their perspectives to counter Christian nationalism. And the project that we’ve put forward, Christians Against Christian Nationalism, is a big tent, a place for Christians from many different ideological, theological, political perspectives to join together across their lines of difference to counter Christian nationalism. And we welcome anyone listening to check out our resources at ChristiansAgainstChristianNationalism.org.

HOLLY: Yeah. And to unite, to unite in ways that raise our voices as a response to this, to be clear that we are the majority. We are ‑‑ and I say, we, not Christians ‑‑ we, those who oppose Christian nationalism, are in the majority, and we need to speak up and fight this ideology.

AMANDA: That’s right. It is a distinct minority of Americans who fully embrace or even sympathize with Christian nationalism, but because those who do are trying to seize political power right now, it is important for we, the people who oppose Christian nationalism to join together and exert our democratic majority influence to push back against it.

HOLLY: And there’s a lot of room for people to do that work.

AMANDA: And so we do want to put a link in show notes to Dr. Paul Miller’s recent book, The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism, as one of those many resources out there for those interested in learning more.

HOLLY: Well, I just appreciate the opportunity to be in an environment like that, to talk with other people about this threat. We understand and the campaign Christians Against Christian Nationalism recognizes that there are many expressions of Christianity, and there are deep differences even among Christians about theological issues, worship practices, even, you know, what the Bible means.

And I think just understanding and recognizing that — as uncomfortable as it might be for some people in their churches — is important to be able to fight Christian nationalism, which is a whole other and distinct threat that is harmful to Christians broadly, as well as a real threat to our country and our tradition of religious freedom for all.

Well, that brings us to the close of this episode of Respecting Religion. Thanks for joining us for today’s conversation. For more details on what we discussed, including links to the articles we mentioned, check out our show notes.

AMANDA: If you enjoyed today’s show, share this program with others on social media and tag us. We’re on Twitter Instagram and YouTube @BJContheHill, and you can follow me on Twitter @AmandaTylerBJC.

HOLLY: Plus, as always, you can email both of us by writing to [email protected]

AMANDA: Thank you for supporting this program. You can visit our show notes for a link to donate to support this podcast and keep it free of sponsored content. And for more episodes, you can see a full list of shows, including transcripts, by visiting RespectingReligion.org.

HOLLY: We encourage you take a moment to find out more about BJC and how we’ve been working for faith freedom for all since 1936. Visit our website at BJCOnline.org for a look at what we do and some of our latest projects.

AMANDA: Join us on Thursdays for new conversations Respecting Religion.