Thursday, May 19, 2011

My Thoughts on the Separation of Church and State

One common area of contention between Republicans and Libertarians is religion as it relates to politics. The theory of a "separation between church and state" is also the primary reason that being a "card carrying member of the ACLU" is viewed so derogatorily by those who otherwise favor "civil liberties". As a Christian Libertarian who generally supports Republicans, I am particularly divided by this schism. Since it fits in with my religion theme this week I'd like to explore my thoughts on the subject. Whether or not I believe in a "separation of church and state" depends on your definition of church.

Many Republicans, conservatives, and Christians deny the existence of any separation of church and state whatsoever. They often use this to justify claims that "America is a Christian nation" or that "American was founded on Christian principles", and thus that holiday displays or other (largely trivial) religious themed images needn't be stricken from government buildings. They are wont to use phrases like "the first amendment guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion", or to note that the phrase "separation of church and state" is not present in the constitution. They are correct; however, that does not mean it did not originate with the ideas of the Founding Fathers. The phrase's origins lie in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Babtists in 1802, which read:

"I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."
Furthermore, it does say in the constitution that the government shall make no establishment of religion, meaning America is not "a Christian nation." The argument that America was founded "on Christian principles" is also unfounded; Christ is not mentioned once in the Constitution, and the fact that many of the Framers were Christian does not make the principles they founded the nation on unique to Christianity. Thus, I support the removal of all Christian-specific paraphernalia from public government displays, courthouses, etc. The government must not endorse any one religion over another, no matter how insignificant that endorsement may appear. That appears straightforward enough, and that is where the thought process stops for most people debating the issue; the separation of church and state appears just and necessary.

But the line is not that clear cut. What paraphernalia is "Christian-specific", and what constitutes as an "endorsement" or an "establishment"? To many Democrats, agnostics, atheists, and Libertarians, the phrase "separation of church and state" means that religion and government should have absolutely nothing to do with one another. This line of thinking runs into trouble in defining of what is or is not a religion. Does a "religion" mean any belief in any God? A certain moral code? Do a minimum number of others have to share your beliefs? There are thousands of "officially recognized" religions in the world, but from my libertarian perspective, there shouldn't need to be. Not only should people be able to think whatever they like, do whatever they like, worship whatever they like, wherever they like in conjunction with as many other people they like, but they should be able to call that belief system whatever they want to call it. The government shouldn't recognize specific collections of thoughts as "religions", because if it does so it has to draw a line somewhere between what is and isn't a religion. We all have our own theories, our own versions or spins or takes on our faiths, our unique perspectives. The first amendment essentially defends our freedom to hold any belief we choose. Freedom of religion was lumped in with freedoms of speech and assembly for a reason; what is religion but a collection of beliefs shared by a collection of people? The lines between what is a religion or what is simply a "moral code" or "belief system" is blurry. And all governments, ours included, are founded on one such moral code.

Government, by definition of the word, governs the actions of its subjects. Some activities must be permitted, and others disallowed: just how many ought to be disallowed and for what reason is the core essence of politics, and is the basis for some moral code. Whatever is disallowed, it must be due to some moral code adopted by the government. John Locke called this moral code a "social contract". For instance, in most governments we disallow murder, theft, and assault. Some do it on the grounds of a religious text. In this country, we do it to defend the "unalienable rights" to life, liberty, and property. In fact, the very same man I quoted above describing the "wall of separation between church and state" also wrote that humans are "endowed by their Creator" with these rights (note the capital C) in the Declaration of Independence. He wrote a few sentences prior that people are "entitled" to "separate but equal station" by "the laws of Nature and of Nature's God."

What did he mean by all that Olde Enlgish mumbo-jumbo? That rights are not given to people by government, they are unalienable, they are inherent at birth, that we are "endowed by our Creator" with them. In other words, we get them from God. He continued that "to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men." Our government was instituted, our "social contract" formed, around that exact ideology, with that sole objective: securing the rights endowed upon humans by God. If that's not religious, I don't know what is.

It is not uniquely Christian, and it does not endorse one "official" organized religion over another. The necessity of government neutrality between competing ideologies, and of the principles of equality under the law and not making any "establishment" of religion remain. But so long as we cannot distinguish between a religion and any other belief system (which we cannot), and so long as all governments are founded on some sort of belief system (which they are), we cannot eradicate religion from governance entirely. Tangibly, symbolically, we can remove the physical trace of common religious icons. But the government must govern in accordance with somebody's morality, and thus in practice it must assert some moral codes as superior to others.

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