The U.S. Constitution protects the separation of church and state—but evidently not church and State Department, which came under fire for promoting a “Being a Christian Leader” speech Monday on its website.
The speech, delivered by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a meeting of American Association of Christian Counselors on Friday, saw Pompeo discuss the influence of his faith on his work as a U.S. official. On Monday, the State Department shared the speech at the top of its website, ahead of more pressing department issues, like U.S. involvement in Turkey’s invasion of Syria. The speech and the State Department’s promotion of the video breached the divide between church and state, leaders from secular and atheist communities say.
“Secretary Pompeo’s speech was pure proselytization,” Sarah Levin, director of governmental affairs at the Secular Coalition for America told The Daily Beast.
During the speech, which he gave in his capacity as Secretary of State, Pompeo stated that “I know some people in the media will break out the pitchforks when they hear that I ask God for direction in my work.”
His personal faith isn’t the problem, Levin said. It’s when it dictates his actions as Secretary of State, or when those beliefs top the State Department website.
“To be clear, we don’t judge Secretary Pompeo for being a Christian or for connecting what he’s achieved to his faith, but it’s unacceptable and a violation of separation of church and state for him to take those beliefs and apply them to policy that affects the American public,” Levin said, “and it’s just as wrong from him to elevation Christianity above other faiths as it is to elevate Christianity above non-faiths.”
Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, echoed Levin.
“It’s perfectly fine for Secretary Pompeo to be a leader who is Christian,” Laser said in a statement. “But he cannot use his government position to impose his faith on the rest of us—that is a fundamental violation of the separation of religion and government. Secretary Pompeo’s speech on how being a Christian leader informs his decision-making and the posting of the speech on the State Department website send the clear message that U.S. public policy will be guided by his personal religious beliefs.”
Pompeo has previously indicated that his religious beliefs factored into his policy decisions as a government official. In a March interview with Christian Broadcasting Network, Pompeo was asked whether President Donald Trump had been raised by God “to help save the Jewish people from the Iranian menace.”
“As a Christian, I certainly believe that's possible,” Pompeo answered.
The secular website Patheos has tracked Pompeo’s comments for years, including a 2015 speech in which he opposed same-sex marriage and stated that “we will continue to fight these battles, it is a never ending struggle… until the rapture.”
In a 2014 speech at a Kansas church, Pompeo cast Islam as the greatest “threat to America” and urged that “we make sure that we pray and stand and fight and make sure that we know that Jesus Christ our savior is truly the only solution for our world.”
Nick Fish, president of American Atheists said Pomeo’s Friday speech wasn’t surprising, given his record.
“As disappointing as it is to see the State Department parroting Christian nationalist talking points, it isn't a surprise. But this goes above and beyond the obvious problem of Secretary Pompeo promoting one religious worldview on taxpayers' dime,” Fish told The Daily Beast. “The bigger issue is that the State Department is being led by a man who genuinely believes that politics is ‘a never-ending struggle... until the rapture.’”
Levin said the Trump administration has consistently pushed at the boundary between church and state. “This administration has pursued an agenda of Christian nationalism,” she said.
She pointed to two other questionable incidents this weekend. On Friday, Attorney General Bill Barr gave a speech blaming “the growing ascendancy of secularism” for depression, mental illness, violence, and the opioid epidemic.
On Saturday, Trump gave a speech to religious leaders proclaiming that “forever and always, Americans will believe in the cause of freedom, the power of prayer, and the eternal glory of God.”
Levin called the trio of speeches a “triple threat.”
“This is not unusual rhetoric we’ve seen from officials,” she said, “but it is unusual to see Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, clear-cut abuse, these officials violating the separation of church and state.”