Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Wall of Separation Between Church and State

I posted these comments as my Facebook status:

I know I'm repeating myself, but this is an issue that requires constant repetition; one of the most basic American freedoms is at stake.

"Erecting the 'wall of separation between church and state'... is absolutely essential in a free society."
- Thomas Jefferson (1808)

"That's what we need to do - to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards."
- Mike Huckabee (2008)

This conversation followed:

Kevin Brettell
I agree with you. And, in fact, I can use a religious text (the Bible) to back up my feelings. "In my father's house, there is room for many mansions. (John, 14:2)." This particular line has been interpreted by many (read: most) Biblical scholars to mean that people of many faiths, as long as they are good, will be welcome in God's house. Who the heck knows which one he really prefers, if any?

Matthew Rozsa

Although I try to maintain a certain emotional distance from the subjects about which I comment on Facebook, I must admit that the one addressed in this post is very personal to me as a Jew. To understand why, one need only look at the text of the famous letter written by President Thomas Jefferson to the Virginia Baptists, from which the quote cited above was culled:

Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person's life, freedom of religion affects every individual. Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people, and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the "wall of separation between church and state," therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.

Defenders of those who advocate basing government policy on conservative Christian beliefs - including not just Mike Huckabee but Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, and Rush Limbaugh, to name only a few - usually try to wriggle out of accountability in one of three ways:

1) They will argue Jefferson's use of the phrase "religious institutions" means that he wasn't referring to individual political leaders, but only actual churches and other ecumenical bodies. What this claim conveniently overlooks, though, is that when politicians like Huckabee and Palin take part or all of their political agenda from the vision of their church, their attempt to impose that agenda on the public WOULD constitute a direct (albeit de facto) rise to government ascendancy of that particular faith . Even though the body of the political leader would technically constitute one degree of separation between the "religious institution" and its "use [of] government power," the end result that Jefferson feared would still have come to pass - namely, that individuals with those religious opinions will have been able to "force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith."

2) They will claim that America was founded as a Christian nation. While I could rebut that assertion by pointing to the principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, the Constitution of the United States, and the personal writings of key founding fathers from James Madison to Benjamin Franklin, I shall instead simply refer to another Jefferson quote (1814):

Christianity neither is, nor ever was, a part of the common law.

3) They will assert that, since a majority of Americans are Christian, it is only fair that Christian beliefs should determine our policies. There are two fatal flaws to this position:

i. While most Americans are indeed Christian, that doesn't mean they all interpret the teachings of that faith in the same way as right-wingers like Palin and Huckabee. Indeed, there are many issues on which a significant majority of American Christians actually dissent from the views of their conservative counterparts.

ii. The foundation of liberty is not majority rule; it is individual rights. Although the proper functioning of democracy requires that the will of the majority be used to elect public officials and (in some cases) pass laws, that does not mean that a free society can exist in which a majority can do as it pleases to the rights of a minority. As James Madison wrote (1788):

Wherever the real power in a Government lies, there is the danger of oppression. In our Governments, the real power lies in the majority of the Community, and the invasion of private rights is chiefly to be apprehended, not from the acts of Government contrary to the sense of its constituents, but from acts in which the Government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents.

Thomas Jefferson was much more succinct in his First Inaugural Address (1801):

All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.

In short, there is a cruel irony to the shrill insistence from so many conservatives that Barack Obama's policies threaten America's most fundamental liberties, for while none of his initiatives contradicts the tenets of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution upon which our nation was founded, the proposals of individuals like Huckabee, Palin, and Gingrich do precisely that.

John Hagan
Matt, I agree with your post. However, the project I'm more interested in, more than arguing about the separation of church and state, is framing liberal Democratic issues as values issues like the Republicans have with their issues. I don't think that, politically, the separation of church and state is the correct response to somebody like Huckabee or Palin. What I would say is:

John Hagan
God wanted us to be good shepherds of the earth, and the Republicans haven't done that. God wanted us to take care of "the least of these" and Republican tax cuts for the wealthy do not do this. God wants us to love our neighbor as our friend, and the so called religious leaders who vilify Muslims and promote intolerance have not done this.

John Hagan
In short, I don't argue that Jesus would have voted Democratic. I argue that Jesus would not have voted. If you're religious, that shouldn't mean your a conservative. Your religion has values that both parties violate. So vote your conscience, not your churches'.

Matthew Rozsa
My concern here has nothing to do with how the paradigm of "values issues" is used today to the detriment of liberal causes, even though that's the subject you address. Instead I am frightened by the increasingly aggressive and outspoken movement to eliminate America's vital separation between church and state through (a) falsifying public understanding of history so as to make it consistent with that erroneous perception and (b) allowing specific religious beliefs to determine government policies on questions ranging from sex education, gay rights, the use of Christian language and images in state institutions and documents, and the conduct of our foreign policy to the teaching of evolution, the use of public funds for parochial schools, school prayer, and even censorship in our libraries (see Beyond that, there is a long history - both within and outside of America - of individuals and groups who use religion as the basis of their governing philosophy persecuting those who do not share their views. As a secular Jew whose friends and loved ones have a diverse range of religious opinions, this is especially worrisome to me.

Incidentally, though, I think you're wrong about the relationship between "values issues" and liberalism. Had Christ been alive now, his activist temperament would have made it impossible for him to not vote, and his strong egalitarianism on economic and social issues (to say nothing of the anti-establishment attitude) would have made it far more likely that he'd support a John Kerry or Barack Obama than a George W. Bush or a Sarah Palin.

Of course, if that doesn't convince you, I could just point out that Jesus was Jewish - and we all know how Jews tend to vote. ;-)

1 comment:

Matthew Laszlo said...

For the history of the Jewish vote (which has been overwhelmingly liberal since 1928), see: