Tuesday, January 13, 2009

separation of church and state

I've had so many, so very long, scattered conversations about the separation of church + state that I thought I would try to assemble my thoughts in one place.

"So Help Me God"

What got me thinking about church and state most recently was the recent news that Obama wanted to say "so help me God" in his oath and some people were objecting.

Let me just say that, ultimately, this particular issue is small. A quick review of history / legal precedent confirmed for me that while the government cannot require anyone to utter "so help me God" to take office, an official is welcome to do that by choice. Furthermore, even if someone somehow prevents Obama from making that part of his vow publicly, if he really wants to ask God's help in his presidency, I'm sure he'll do that in his own private prayer.

However, this got me thinking about how people talk about the "separation of church and state" and how it get "violated".

Origins of the principle

Here's the actual text of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (emphasis added):
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.
And the actual phrase is usually traced to a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists (then a religious minority), where he wrote:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, 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 and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
Essentially, what people sought was religious freedom and respect for their own religious, not necessarily the absence of religion from the public sphere.

The courts made the phrase ubiquitous by incorporating it into their later rules. While the kinks in the definition are still being worked out, the basics are in place: individual worship in any form is protected, and government-sponsored religion is prevented.

How Separate is Too Separate?

First of all, I think some amount of separation of church and state is extremely important. As a Christian, I would be really upset if my child were being forced to practice some other religion in school, or if Orthodox Jewish law were applied to the whole country (what would life be like without cheeseburgers?!).

In some ways, I think we haven't gone far enough. While the government isn't forcing anyone to pay taxes to a particular religious group, non-Christians in this country still don't have it too easy. We have Christmas off (and in Boston, even Good Friday), but not Ramadan or Yom Kippur. You're supposed to be able to take them off with no repercussions, but if you're a student and you take one of those days off, you end up with double work to make up without the benefit of instruction, and if you're a teacher and you take the days off (at least in my last school district), you have to use one of your personal days, as if you were taking a vacation!

But in a lot of ways, I think we're gone too far, especially in ultra-secular urban areas like San Francisco. I'm a school teacher, so my examples are going to come from that perspective:
  • The absence of religion in public school curriculum -- I'm not talking about "here is how you pray," more like "here are the things that Christians, Buddhists, etc believe and here are their histories" -- is leading to a nation of young people ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of a grown-up world where the fact is, people are motivated by religion (and sometimes by bastardizations thereof). Fundamentally, if you do not understand the religious motivations and background, Israel/Palestine looks like just a bunch of stubborn mean people (which means you're not in a position to convince them of anything). If you don't understand why Christians find abortion so heinous, you're not going to be able to convince them of alternate solutions (to whatever you see as the problem).

  • A great deal of wisdom has been gathered throughout the ages, recorded and passed on through various religious traditions, and it's foolhardy to try to ignore it all and start over from scratch. Whether or not you believe Jesus Christ came to save us all from our sins, you have to admit that most of the 10 Commandments are pretty good, (don't lie, don't steal, don't kill...) and you can't really argue with the whole "treat others as you want to be treated" bit. I'm not saying religious teachings/writings should always be used, but it's no good if they're always avoided because of their ties to some religion or other.

  • Some people would argue for the removal of anything religion/God-related from all public life (including, apparently, paid advertisements). After a certain point, this is tantamount to making atheism a state-sponsored religion. And make no mistake -- atheism is a religion, with adherents as fervent, and as tepid, as any brand of Christianity. The state should no more sponsor atheism than it should sponsor Islam or Catholicism. By ignoring religion in contexts where it obviously makes sense to discuss it, teachers/schools send a message the religion is not valuable, that it's some kind of indulgence not worthy of serious scholarly consideration.
Anyway, suffice to say that while I'm glad we have religious freedom in this country, I think people sometimes get a little carried away with their conceptions of a separation of church and state -- and not in a good way.

dedication / explanation

In this space, I hope to share how faith and reason inform my opinions about politics and policy.

I have many friends who are scientists, logicians, analysts of many stripes – people who value reason and logic above all else. When I tell them I’m Catholic, they’re often shocked, or they don’t know what to make of me. They might accept it by ignoring it.

These same friends might think of Christians as group that, in the political arena, behave irrationally, inexplicably. They know that Christians comprise a significant chunk of the American electorate, but they might consider it a chunk unreachable, maybe a chunk that stands in the way of progress.

This blog is for those friends, and others like them. Sometimes we will agree, and sometimes we will disagree. My point is that in either case, we should be able to have a respectful conversation about it. Christians don’t need to be a black box.

This blog is also for Christians who think I’m a crazy liberal, for you to see that I have not abandoned my faith to embrace socially liberal stances.

Either way, I hope you take the time to read and comment on these (probably infrequent) entries. I have lived much of my life in the slim overlap between faith and science, and it has been a lonely place because I have been afraid to have these conversations. I’m brave enough now, if you’re open to it.