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.


  1. Hm. Do schools in SF really not teach religion? I don't think we had a class about religions, per se, though it certainly came up in various classes. I know my high school social studies class in particular taught us some stuff about Islam, and how their art is geometric because they forbid idol worship, for instance. And I can still recite the Gayatri Mantra on demand, because we had to memorize it. :) And in my English class, we read the Book of Job.

    As an atheist, I totally agree that we should learn about various world religions in class, because it plays such a large role in people's lives.

    Re: golden rule:
    In college, a large number of my friends were in a Christian fellowship and such. One day, one of them came up to me and said, "Kenneth, I'm confused. You say you're an atheist, but yet you have a lot of Christian values, like you were telling me you think even murderers should be treated with compassion. I don't understand where your values come from."

    I could only say that I think there are many values that develop in societies all over the world, and they do not necessarily come from religion.

    I used to find that story amusing, but I think in the context of what you said, I actually find it a bit disturbing, because it shows that if the person who said that to me believes values can only come from his religion, then perhaps he's not open to values from other religions? As you said, I think it's good to be open to the lessons all religions can teach us.

  2. And as for the article that started this post, I have no problem with Obama saying that because he wants to. I did, however, have a problem with the "under God" part of the Pledge of Allegiance, because kids were forced to say it.

    I actually find things like displaying the Ten Commandments in a courthouse to be a gray area. I can see the argument against it, that it gives off the impression that the Ten Commandments trump the law, but at the same time I'd be fine with it being there as a sort of historical artifact type thing.

  3. So first of all, I think this is a really thoughtfully written post in general. My first reaction is to the beginning where you comment on Boston Public School holidays, particularly Good Friday. I went to a private elementary school, but we were on the BPS schedule, and also got Good Friday off. I have to say, as a kid, it never really bothered me (what 8 year old says no to a day off school?). In middle school, my school had so many Jews that we did actually get Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur off. In high school was when I started noticing what you mentioned, about how it's hard to catch up from being out for a day when everyone else is there. Also, at my last job, my boss encouraged me to take a vacation day instead of using my employer's religious holiday policy (which basically says the time can be made up so you still get paid). It's just a hassle to deal with, in a way Christians never have to deal with getting Christmas off (Easter of course, always being a Sunday is not an issue for those working M-F).

    Then, I was talking to James's cousin who is applying for faculty jobs this year. One of the places she was thinking about applying was Yeshiva University, until she realized that Christmas isn't automatically a holiday. She said she'd have to ask for it off under the religious holiday policy and possibly have to use a vacation day. She seemed to think this was the end of the world, which I found a little bit amusing as I told her "Welcome to my world." I don't think I had realized how much the way this generally works bothers me until I saw how much Jennifer took for granted that she could get her holiday off, even if she was teaching at a religiously affiliated university that's not affiliated with her religion.

    Anyway, I'm sorry it this is less than coherent. I look forward to your future posts!

  4. I teach at a Christian school so obviously taking days off for Yom Kippur or Ramadan is frowned upon in our particular establishment :-) But obviously this is a choice - parents choose to send their kids here so therefore they agree to abide by our rules.

    I will say this - when I went to public schools in Kansas I had friends who would take days off for Ramadan and Yom Kippur (well, not the same friends) and there were no repercussions whatsoever other than notification so that teachers wouldn't schedule exams that day. Same for college. I went to Washington in St. Louis and there were zero repercussions for Yom Kippur or other religious celebrations that I can remember.

  5. Ken -- Religion is not necessarily a part of the public school curriculum in California. Some schools/teachers choose to do a unit on world religions. Oh, and I definitely agree with you about "under God".

    Angela -- Read Mira's comment. No, there are no official/direct repercussions, but think about what a heavy courseload you had in high school, and how hard it was to be a day behind if you were out sick -- and then think about those 2 weeks in Sept/Oct where observant Jews end up missing 2 days in less than 2 weeks... it's just a little rough. And Ramadan -- I don't even know how those kids functioned with no food all day!