Monday, June 1, 2009

The Importance of Separating Church and State

I remember reading something recently about how Americans are so much more religious than Europeans. The writer seemed to find this fact surprising. I did not find it at all surprising. I believe the reason is not because our ancestors for the past two hundred years have been more religious or better at passing on their faith, but rather because our government has been less religious.

We do not have a monopoly on religious tolerance here in the U.S. Most E.U. nations have had similar policies of religious tolerance for several generations at least. The Netherlands and Switzerland were allowing freedom of religion back when the Massachusetts Bay Colony was forcibly converting the local native tribes (the "Pilgrims" came to this country after a sojourn in Amsterdam, not for the right to freely practice their religion, but for the right to impose it on their neighbors).

What we do have that most of Europe lacks is a government that is prohibited from favoring or establishing a state religion. Our founding fathers understood that combining church and state damages not only the state but religion as well. When the two are entwined, the church inevitably becomes corrupted by political power and political agendas, causing the faithful to become disillusioned and irreligious.

A good example of this is France. The Catholic church in France was tightly entwined with the ancien regime. By the time the revolution hit, the rabble hated the church every bit as much as they hated the royal family. Of all the world's majority-Catholic nations, France is the most strictly secular. The clergy cannot even perform legal marriages there; church weddings are sometimes held afterwards, but the legal ceremony is at City Hall.

Russia also had a corrupt official church that supported (and was supported by) a repressive regime. The Bolsheviks opposed religion of any kind largely because of that history. Now, of course, history is repeating itself, with Vladimir Putin backing the Russian Orthodox Church and prohibiting new religions (not only Scientology, but also Protestant churches) from proselytizing in Russia. Only religions that existed in Tsarist Russia (meaning Orthodox Christianity, Ukranian/Roman Catholocism, Judaism and Islam) enjoy the freedom to grow in Putinist Russia.

Unfortunately, in our zeal to oppose Communism in the days of the Cold War, we missed the point. Imposing religion (by adding "Under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance and "In God We Trust" to our currency, for instance) is every bit as bad as imposing atheism. It creates a backlash and damages the ability of our citizens to freely practice their own faith.

Too many Americans do not understand the real importance of separating church and state. We cringe when a political party in Turkey seeks to establish Sharia (Islamic law) as the basis of the nation's legal code but look the other way when the state of South Dakota passes a law that forces doctors to tell women that having an abortion will increase their risk of breast cancer (even though there is no evidence to indicate a correlation).

Yes, the abortion issue is primarily a church versus state issue. Is abortion murder? The answer to that question depends entirely upon one's religious beliefs. Devout modern Catholics believe that human life (with a soul) begins at conception, so abortion is always murder (church writings regarding abortion were more complex in the Middle Ages). Mormons believe that human life begins at implantation, so extra embryos that are fertilized in vitro may be discarded (or used for stem cell research) without murdering a human being. The Jewish faith teaches that the soul enters the body at the moment of birth. So, while a devout Jew may oppose abortion on moral grounds, just as he might oppose cruelty to animals, it is not murder.

The state has no natural interest in preventing abortions, as they do not threaten the security of society. U.S. citizens have never had to live in fear of being aborted, even when the procedure was at its most available in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There are plenty of individuals in this country who are willing and able to reproduce, so we are not in danger of depopulation. Laws restricting abortion are really about enshrining religious rules as the law of the land. Religious leaders can sermonize about the evils of abortion, but they cannot force even their own flocks to obey (much less non-believers). They can, however, pressure lawmakers to force such obedience.

The U.S. government is not in the business of saving souls, nor should it be. When churches try to sub-contract that business to the state, both are corrupted. The state does have an interest in protecting its citizens from religious terrorism, however. I hope Randall Terry comes to understand that.


Deekaman said...

I will purposely avoid the abortion question and focus on church/state. We will never convince each of the others' position.

My sole argument here is that government, over the last 50 years has, defacto, instituted Atheism as the state religion. The Founders had a strong belief in a higher power and believed that the Rights of Man came from that higher power.

As a society, we have become hyper-sensitive to any display of faith in a public setting. Saying a prayer before a football game is not, IMHO "forcing" a religion on anyone. It is only invoking that higher power. If one does not believe, how does hearing that prayer injure?

One last comment: As a believer, if I am wrong, when I die I have lost nothing. If the atheist is wrong, well...eternity is a really long time.

Ordinary Jill said...

Do you recall the incident in the U.S. Senate several years ago, when a Hindu cleric said a non-denominational prayer (invoking the Creator, not Krishna)? He was shouted down by a bunch of Christianist protestors, who insisted that the U.S. is a Christian nation.

Do you remember the flap when Rep. Keith Ellison, an American Muslim, took his oath of office on the Koran?

Until people of faith in this country acknowledge the equal right of people of other faiths to participate in public ceremonies, all religious expression must be kept out. That is the only way to guarantee that all U.S. citizens will be treated equally.