November 9, 2010

The Crumbling Wall of Separation

By Francis Nye

This week the Supreme Court seems closely divided about a tax-break program that provides millions of dollars in scholarships for students at private religious schools.

The conservative justices indicated they are likely to rule against a challenge to the program that says it amounts to an unconstitutional state endorsement of religion. The court's liberals suggested they have problems with the state's tax credit.

The Obama administration joined with in arguing in strong defense of the program, saying the individuals who oppose it should not even be allowed to bring their lawsuit in federal court.

I think today many Americans are confused as to the meaning of “separation of church and state.” Even today’s political candidates like Christian O’Donnell from Delaware are confused on this topic. [see video clip below]

The concept of separation of church and state refers to the distance in the relationship between organized religion and the nation state. The term is an offshoot of the original phrase, "wall of separation between church and state," as written in Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists Association in 1802. In Jefferson's letter, he was reassuring the Baptists of Danbury that their religious freedom would remain protected - a promise that no possible religious majority would be able to force out a state's official church. The original text reads:

"...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.” [1]

The phrase was quoted by the United States Supreme Court first in 1878, and then in a series of cases starting in 1947. The phrase itself does not appear in the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

It is also interesting to point out that the concept of separation has since been adopted in a number of countries, to varying degrees depending on the applicable legal structures and prevalent views toward the proper role of religion in society. A similar principle of laïcité has been applied in France and Turkey, while some socially secularized countries such as Norway have maintained constitutional recognition of an official state religion. The concept parallels various other international social and political ideas, including secularism, disestablishment, religious liberty, and religious pluralism. Whitman (2009) observes that in many European countries, the state has, over the centuries, taken over the social roles of the church, leading to a generally secularized public sphere.

American revolutionary Thomas Paine, who authored The Age of Reason criticizes institutionalized religion and challenges the legitimacy of the Bible. Published in three parts in 1794, 1795, and 1807, it was a bestseller in America, where it caused a short-lived deistic revival. The Age of Reason presents common deistic arguments; for example, it highlights what Paine saw as corruption of the Christian Church and criticizes its efforts to acquire political power. Paine advocates reason in the place of revelation, leading him to reject miracles and to view the Bible as an ordinary piece of literature rather than as a divinely inspired text. It promotes natural religion and argues for a creator-God.

Paine may have not been too far from the mark with his concerns regarding Christian Church’s effort in acquiring political power. Its no secret that today’s Christians are trying to do just that. Now I never buy into conspiracy theories but in this case there is a trend in this direction and the evidence is clear in my opinion. In fact several books have been written on this very topic. One book that comes to mind is; Religion, Politics, and the Christian Right: Post-9/11 Powers in American Empire by Mark Lewis Taylor , Professor of Theology and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary.  Prof. Taylor’s focus in his book is on a subset of conservative evangelicalism which has adopted a program of political rule alongside its evangelistic mission and which has formed a political alliance with neoconservatives who seek to impose American rule around the globe.

Christianity in particular has thus far has been successful in permeating our government and way of life. It has been slowly chipping away at the frame work of our very constitutional protections against there being one supreme and dominate religion in this country. If left unchecked on its current course Christianity may one day have an even greater power than they do now to influence government policy and even go so far as to oppress other people’s freedoms to practice their own faith. Even more alarming is the Christian's oppressive attitudes towards gays. That Christians have gone to extreme lengths to oppose gay marriages thus forcing their belief system on another group. Even though Christians may justify this attitude as an affront to god it is exactly what our founding fathers feared, religious intolerance directing our laws.  It begs the question, should the government be in the marriage business in the first place?  Maybe it would be more appropriate for religious institutions to perform marriages and the government to perform a civil union between consenting adults.  However, this is a subject best left to another time and another posting.

If you ask most people today they will espouse that our founding fathers were Christians and therefore we are a Christian nation and our laws should reflect Christian dogma. The truth is the United States of American was NOT founded as a Christian nation with Christian ideals. [2] Most of our founding fathers were Deists, NOT Christians. These men were truly enlighten individuals who were ahead of their time.

Deism (dē′•ĭzm) [3] is a religious and philosophical belief that a supreme being created the universe, and that this (and religious truth in general) can be determined using reason and observation of the natural world alone, without the need for either faith or organized religion. Many Deists reject the notion that God intervenes in human affairs, for example through miracles and revelations. These views contrast with the dependence on revelations, miracles, and faith found in many Jewish, Christian, Islamic and other theistic teachings.

Our founding fathers understood just how dangerous religion can be if left unchecked. That it should have absolutely no business in the running and maintaining a government. Remember our founding fathers fled Europe because of religious oppression. They saw first hand the horrors of Christianity and religious persecution.

In the United States, Enlightenment philosophy (which itself was heavily inspired by deist ideals) played a major role in creating the principle of religious freedom, expressed in Thomas Jefferson's letters, and the principle of religious freedom expressed in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. American Founding Fathers, or Framers of the Constitution, who were especially noted for being influenced by such philosophy include Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Cornelius Harnett, Governor Morris, and Hugh Williamson just to name a select few. Their political speeches show distinct deistic influence.  Some other notable Founding Fathers may have been more directly deist. These include James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and Ethan Allen. [4]

Finally, anyone seeking to mix church and state has failed to understand the nature and proper role of either. Being founded upon the principal that all men are created equal and deserving of equal protection under the law is what makes the American system of democracy such a gift to mankind. To incorporate the inherently exclusionary imperatives of a particular religion into the determinedly inclusive system of the American constitutional form of government would be to undermine the very spirit of America by pushing it away from a democracy, and toward a theocracy.


Full story: On tax break program being challenged in the Supreme Court

[1] Jefferson's Letter to the Danbury Baptists (June 1998) - Library of Congress Information Bulletin.

[2] “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” (Treaty of Tripoli, Article 11: Written during the Administration of George Washington and signed into law by John Adams.)

[3] R. E. Allen (ed) (1990). The Concise Oxford Dictionary. Oxford University Press.

[4] "Excerpts from Allen's Reason The Only Oracle Of Man". Ethan Allen Homestead Museum.

[video clip]

Other relevant links and articles:
Christians influance vote in mid-term elections
Religion & Politics 2010

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