Thursday, September 25, 2003

4. Politics, religion don't mix

As most have probably heard, Pat Robertson has asked his followers to pray for the removal of three Supreme Court justices in hopes that President Bush will replace them with conservatives. With these conservatives on the bench, Robertson hopes to tear down the wall separating church and state, thus empowering the government to force upon its citizens the belief systems of the majority (or ruling party) through law. Ironically, it's the principle of church and separation itself that allows him to worship the God of his choosing.

The principle that separates church and state is one of the most passionate issues facing this country today. Unfortunately, it is often one of the most misunderstood. Supporting the separation of church and state is not an endorsement of atheism, immorality or communism. As usually happens in passionate debates, both sides seek to discredit the other by using exaggerated terms or analogies. Actually, in understanding the issue one only needs to comprehend the purpose for church/state separation. The purpose of building the wall between the two disciplines is to ensure religious freedom. With this wall, America thrives as a multifaith community and, with the exception of the Muslim fundamentalist states, is in receipt of worldwide admiration. However, if the purpose is religious freedom, one then has to question why the religious right (or anyone) opposes its establishment.

The concept was born a radical experiment, as the ratification of the U.S. Constitution marked the first time any nation separated the two disciplines. The framers of this country were well aware of the dangers of a state-supported religion- having witnessed firsthand the deplorable acts of religious persecution in Europe. For example, in 800 C.E., the emperor of what is now China, recognizing the wealth and power of Buddhists priests, destroyed nearly 5000 monasteries and forced more than 250,000 monks and other religious figures to renounce their vows.

Among the earliest settlers of America were the Pilgrims and Puritans- both of whom sought religious freedom from the Church of England. However the religious freedom they desired was only for themselves- they had no interest in religious tolerance (the Puritans worse than the Pilgrims, who were eventually absorbed by the Puritans). In this manner, Massachusetts was settled such that only members of the Puritan church could hold office, and those who did not pay taxes supporting the church were immediately jailed. Baptists, Quakers and even Catholics and Jews who tried to settle in Massachusetts were unwelcome and often moved elsewhere.

Devout Christian preacher Roger Williams was among the first seeking to separate church and state when he challenged Puritan law in Massachusetts. Guilty of "disseminating new and dangerous opinion" he was to be sent back to England. He escaped and founded the city of Providence in modern day Rhode Island, where all that chose to live there were promised political and religious freedom. Massachusetts, of course, went on to demonstrate the potential atrocities of church-state relations- culminating in the witch trials of 1692 in which 19 "witches" were either hanged or stoned to death.

On the issue of government and religion in Virginia, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson took the lead. Influenced by John Locke's Letter on Tolerance, Madison successfully fought The Henry Bill, and Jefferson wrote The Religious Freedom Bill- that Madison helped pass. Approvingly, Baptist minister John Leland on the issue of religious tests wrote, "If a man merits the confidence of his neighbors in Virginia- let him worship one God, twenty Gods, or no God...he is eligible to any office in the state." Moving forward and with America's defeat of Great Britain, revolutionist now faced the challenge of forming a government.

The Constitution, formed in 1787, was a secular document, without the reference to any religion, except to forbid religious tests as a qualification to any public office. However, a couple of states wouldn't ratify the Constitution without the addition of the specific rights as eventually outlined in the Bill of Rights. The first amendment that states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion", was carefully crafted, changed and reviewed. The intent of congress and the first amendment was obvious- to mandate government to keep its hands off religion- neither aiding nor hindering it- to the fullest possible extent.

In light of the first amendment, the government has no right to endorse any particular religion, which is why the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools and government offices is illegal. There are a number of myths concerning both the forming of the first amendment and its interpretation. For example, many don't realize that children can pray in school, as long as it is not a school-led prayer or reading- anything that may disrupt interfaith harmony. Schools may even discuss religion as part of a curriculum, objective and academic, relating to its role in world and U.S. history (it is not permitted in Science classes, because, firstly, it is not science, and because there are numerous creation stories- all of which would be entitled to fair account). Another is the attack claiming that the principle of church and state was formed under the influence of the communism (and atheism) found in the Soviet Union. Of course, the American Constitution was written 145 years before its Soviet counterpart. A final myth, although there are many more, is that the first amendment only prohibits the establishment of a national religion. If the framers of the constitution desired this, they had ample opportunity to say so. In fact, earlier drafts included such language, but were ultimately rejected.

In analyzing the alternatives, at least two must be considered- a national state supported religion or the equal support state for all religions. A national religion, even as broad as Christianity, is discriminatory to all non-Christian religions. Americans would be forced to accept, study and subscribe to the beliefs particular of Christianity. Furthermore, beliefs within Christianity differ; the debate would be extended to the details. Religions would spend millions in elections to ensure that their views were represented- whereas currently, as a non-profit organization, they are required to be politically neutral.

Perhaps worse than a national religion, although more civil, would be the equal establishment for all religions. If the government enters religion with the premise of being fair, the fear is that this approach would be immeasurable, suspect to abuse and logistically impossible. For example, in Columbus, Ohio there is more than 1700 churches alone- all of which would seek government support for their programs. Unequal distribution would be disastrous. Potential abuse would have to be regulated, perhaps even requiring churches to reveal their financial statements. Notably, and to this point, the voucher program, in its infancy, has already seen abuse. In Cleveland alone, the Islamic Academy and the Golden Christian Academy were cited for enrolling fictitious students and teaching students almost exclusively through the use of videos, respectively.

The freedom of religion ensures the right to believe and worship any and all gods of one's choosing, without the fear of the oppression, discrimination or intolerance that is so often experienced by citizens of other countries. The freedom of religion protects the rights of all Americans, not just those of the majority- and therefore is not subject to majority vote. If percent of the population or even 15 individuals represent the minority, their rights are protected equally under the Constitution, no different than the civil rights of other minorities. Its hard to understand why anyone would oppose religious freedom, noting exceptions such as Pat Robertson who wishes to impose the beliefs of his religion on the citizens of this country. Sadly, the views of Chief Justices William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas threaten religious freedom- thus the reality of Robertson's America is only a few prayers away.

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