American Taliban 2: Why Separation of Church and State is Good for Both
There were very good reasons why the Bill of Rights of our constitution provides for separation of church and state, which many have now forgotten. In the 1700’s, the wars of religion that had devastated Europe for a century were still fresh memory. Indeed, many Americans had come to this country in flight from the oppressions, displacements, and upheavals of those wars.
When the framers said: “Congress shall make no law regarding any establishment of religion,” they were not referring to “an establishment” in the sense most people use that word. It does not refer to a particular church, either building or body, but to the doctrine of establishment, which basically means that, whatever religion the monarch espouses becomes the official religion of the country and the people are required to observe it under threat of penalty. This resulted in back-and-forth situations such as England becoming a Protestant country when Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church, going back to being Catholic under Queen Mary (whose sobriquet “Bloody Mary” was earned through her persecution of Protestant holdouts), and back to being a Protestant nation under Queen Elizabeth. Had Mary, Queen of Scots succeeded Elizabeth, it would have been back to Catholicism and another inquisition. Catholic/Protestant tensions resulted in James II being overthrown and replaced with William and Mary in 1688, after which Parliament passed a law declaring that no Roman Catholic was permitted to ascend to the English throne, nor could any English monarch marry a Roman Catholic, which remains the law to this day.
The thing is, when church and state comingle, it’s bad for both. Religion becomes a test for eligibility to govern. James II replaced government officers throughout England with Catholics, despite the fact that England was only 2% Catholic at the time. Religion, on the other hand, becomes a handy stick for the government to beat its critics with. How much easier it is to charge someone with heresy or apostasy, which are merely sins of word or thought, than it is treason, which requires proof of action. When the government is sanctioned by the church, then criticism of the government becomes criticism of the church, and any critics are thereby guilty of “insulting religion” or “insulting God,” which is a crime in many Muslim nations. (“Insulting the government” is also an offense in some places, mainly dictatorships, which is not a good model to follow.)
Religion doesn’t concern itself with civil rights or due process, and punishing the body to save the soul was an unfortunately prevalent doctrine, with the Spanish Inquisition being only one of the worst examples. The Inquisition was also a disgraceful demonstration of not only using a supposedly religious purpose to destroy political targets, but also an example of gross corruption as the Inquisitors and their myrmidons lined their pockets with the fortunes of their victims. This was a common feature of witch-hunting the world over, including Salem, Massachusetts, where accusers profited by buying the lands of their convicted neighbors at rock-bottom prices.
The Christian world actually benefited from having the Catholic Church be the sole source of religious dogma for a thousand years or so. By the time of the Reformation, what was sinful was pretty well set, and most Protestant churches if anything, loosened up on the more arbitrary rules. (Even though some current Protestants seem intent on going more “Old Testament” than most Jews--.) Sharia law has no such central authority. Any “religious judge” can issue a fatwa, or ruling, that can be binding. This results in ludicrous situations such as the judge who ruled that a woman could not live in the same house as her five-year old adopted son, since to share a home with any male not either her husband or related by blood constituted adultery. (Islam evidently does not recognize adoptions.) That this occurred in Egypt, where sharia is not the government law, is still troubling, since such a ruling would encourage the “faithful” to kill the woman as an adulteress. Imagine the state of our laws if non-elected small claims court or municipal judges could issue binding interpretations of law.
Combining church and state degrades both. Adding government into the church exposes the church to the seductions of worldly power and wealth. It would reintroduce to the church the sins of simony (selling offices) and selling indulgences, which are now rife in government due to “Citizens United” and other corrupt lobbying practices. It would give back to the church the ability to punish “sin” with imprisonment and execution that it hasn’t had for hundreds of years.
Combining the church with government puts the state above its own laws. Cloaked in the armor of “divine right” and “God’s will,” it becomes immune to criticism or question. A religious government is axiomatically an autocracy, since God is not a democrat, nor can his kingdom also be a republic.
Even if in the highly unlikely event that you were able to get a general agreement that there ought to be a larger spiritual component in public life in America, it would be impossible to get a majority concurrence on whose principles to go by, given that religious thought in this country ranges from doctrinaire atheism to Amish to Satanist, plus representation of virtually every non-Abrahamic religion on Earth. Yet, Rick Santorum sees fit to introduce his regressive religious views into the Presidential race, ignoring the fact that this is a minority viewpoint even among Catholics. What this means is that either Santorum really doesn’t understand what religious freedom really means, or does know and doesn’t care because (in his opinion) God has told him what to do and that trumps what anyone else (or even everyone else, see “autocracy,” above) wants or believes.
While it is appropriate to expect public officials to follow the dictates of individual conscience in those areas where such discretion is allowed, this is why we have to work to keep religious conservatives from trying to impose their beliefs on everyone, and failing or refusing to perform required duties under the law on religious grounds. As rackety and corrupt as it is, our present system of laws provides us the most individual freedoms of any system on Earth today, and that is worth keeping.
And—speaking of timely coincidence, this just showed up in my “Daily Share” e-mail feed: This entry was originally posted at http://sinister-sigils.dreamwidth.org/204505.html. Please comment there using OpenID.