The presidential election is coming up and I’m extremely worried about the outcome. There really aren’t any candidates that I’m thrilled about. And of course, with this being an extremely contentious race, the religious right is becoming extremely vocal. They’ve been crying the blues for decades about the “war on religion,” or more specifically the “war against Christianity.”
I’ve read the Constitution and the First Amendment and it’s various clauses, and I think people on both sides of the debate are either reading things wrong or they simply haven’t read it. Many are comfortable with spouting off the opinions that have been handed to them by pundits, parents and others.
Would it surprise you to know that the phrase, “Separation of Church and State” aren’t used anywhere in the Constitution or it’s Amendments? It’s a popular phrase, but it was developed years ago by those interpreting the actual words. As with an interpretation, there is plenty of room for divergent opinions. Here are a few key phrases to consider:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
“…no religious test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
The actual phrase most people think of as definitive is from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote declaring, “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.” The Supreme Court has repeatedly used this as the test of the intent of the First Amendment.
My interpretation of all of this (and these are just my opinions, take them however you like, embrace them, toss them in the garbage, whatever. You know what opinions are like…)
Government can’t make laws establishing a mandatory religion. So there should never be a “Church of the United States.” They also should not prohibit or muzzle those who DO want to practice religion in their own way. But if you aren’t establishing a state religion and everyone is free to practice as they choose, that means NOT displaying religious items such as Nativities because that infers in some way that a particular religion is sanctioned by the government. It’s subtle, but it’s there.
However, if you want to throw the doors open and let every religion in as a means to be a fair and impartial government, that means that next to that nativity, a statue of the Buddha can be placed next to a menorah. I’m all for throwing everything up there – I’ve never been offended by nativities, wishing someone a “Merry Christmas,” or bowing my head out of respect for others when they pray. But I am offended when those practices effectively exclude others from expressing their own beliefs in the same forums.
This is where the religious right frequently gets it wrong – they cry foul if an Islamic group wants to build a mosque or if atheists are protesting the inclusion of prayer at the opening of a government ceremony. Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against prayer. Some of my favorite people (most of them!) pray every day. But they do so in their homes, churches, cars, etc. They don’t force others to join them. You can’t have it both ways. Either EVERYBODY can display a religious icon or nobody can. This is the crux of the problem for the religious right. They only want THEIR religion to be prominently displayed.
The Difference Between Religious Belief and Morality
The other problem the religious right has is its strident declaration that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation” that must be guided by Christianity’s rules. No. The United States was certainly founded primarily (if not exclusively) by Christians, but they were guided by their morals. The fact that those lofty moral ideals were grounded in Christianity is beside the point. There can be morality without religion, a tenant that many conservative Christians want to ignore. In the best of all possible worlds, morality would be universal. Religion should not be.
I’ve met plenty of atheists, agnostics, Muslims, Jews and more who were moral. I’ve met plenty of Christians who weren’t. There are certain moral absolutes that secular humanists and others embrace without having to refer to an all-seeing God who sets down a list of rules on stone tablets. To infer that you are a good person only if you are Christian is insulting at least and morally reprehensible at worst.
So let’s put aside religion this year and take a look at the candidates and ask ourselves, “Which one of these candidates has strong moral values and the humanity to lead us to a better future?”