Thursday, June 07, 2007

Church and State

When we mention the phrase "Church and State", we run the risk of misunderstanding. The "separation of" those two is referred to all the time, though the phrase is not found in the Constitution. My good friends on the Right feel their temps rise at just the mention of the phrase, because they feel it is something invented lately to keep children from any sort of religious influence in public schools or, even worse, that all laws originating from a religious or moral principle are unfairly banned by a cabal of secular jurists protected from public outcry by lifetime appointments to the bench. They wish, in some cases, that Billy Graham and Pat Robertson sat on the Supreme Court in order to give voice to the Constitution's framers, who, it's assumed, were also Right-Wing Christians.
When I hear this view in church (always coming from folks I consider to be moral people, often good friends), it makes me squirm. Here is what the Framers meant: no church was to be promoted by the state, and none would be prohibited unless it practiced beliefs clearly contrary to common law, such as human sacrifice or ritualized violence. The realm of religion was, in effect, to be treated the same as the realm of commerce. No sausage making company, for example, was to gain official government endorsement over any other such company as long as all parties kept the laws. So it was meant to operate among religious parties, though no one could have predicted the religious variety that has since arisen here and in various parts of the world.
To people of my religion, this should be especially significant, because said church originated in this country, about 40 years after the Revolutionary War. The church had considerable opposition, sometimes violent, from members of other established denominations, all of them supposedly Christian. The fledgling faith might have been strangled in its crib had the churches of the day been able to call upon the State to exercise law enforcement authority to promote one brand of Christianity while constricting another. Since there was no such special privilege, the "new" sect had some freedom to grow, even though at one point the bulk of the church's members were obliged to leave the country altogether in order to avoid persecution. I'm speaking of course of the Latter Day Saints, the "Mormons" of pioneering fame.
But what about today? Faithful people have used public spaces and buildings, not so much to promote as to celebrate religion, particularly at times of religious holidays. High school football games still begin with prayers in some places, and large monuments celebrating the Ten Commandments are common on public property. Does all this have to end in order to show fair treatment of all people of whatever religion? I don't think it's always in good taste to display one's religion, but perhaps our Buddhist/Hindu/Muslim neighbors can indulge us a bit, as long as we can show that we're not motivated by a spirit of meanness or a desire to "Christianize" them by force. Our nation's religious diversity today I believe shows, not that we're "backsliders", but that we've learned some tolerance over the generations.


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