The humorist, Will Rogers, once said that “Nothing changes like the past.” And he was assuredly right. Those who interpret history cannot avoid injecting their own values and interests into their interpretations. And if they are politically invested, which they inevitably are, those interpretations of history will seek to further their current political interests. This is true of all of us, whether we locate ourselves on the left, the right or in the center of the political spectrum.
We live in a time of palpable and painful cultural wars that are severely dividing our country. And there can be no doubt that a major element in those culture wars relates to religion, and the role religion should play in our political and public life. These religious struggles are played out in various sectors of society, from the grass roots, through our political leadership and into the rarified precincts of academic, philosophical and judicial argument. One of the battle fields of the culture war is the thought, intentions and written record our Founding Fathers, and what they had to say about religion and its relationship to government. Elements on the far right, and not so far right, who want to destroy the separation of church and state, will cherry pick from the writing of the Founders, in the way in which scriptural enthusiasts will cherry pick from the Bible, in order to prove how Madison and Jefferson support their views that government should be in the business of accommodating itself to and supporting religion. Indeed, taken out of context, one can, it seems, find in the Founding Fathers citations to support his or her view, in the way in which one can get the Bible or the Koran to support any conceivable position.
This morning I want to take another look at the place of religion in American society. It is a topic I have spoken about often, and spend more time thinking about, because the changes we see in American society, which in substantial measure, are driven by religion, I believe are ominous for the future of freedom as we have known it, and down the road, for the maintenance of civil peace. Ethical Culture is a religion also; indeed it is a religion, which from its founding in 1876, has been deeply enmeshed in public, civic and political life as an expression of its principles. So the question of what is the appropriate role of religion in the public sphere would be intimately important to us, even if we did not find ourselves in a highly charged religio-political environment at the moment.
Certainly in more than a century, religion has never played such a powerful and intimate role in the life of our society, and never within that period has religion been so tightly interwoven with government, especially at the very highest level. And it is religion of a very conservative and intolerant kind which is driving our politics. The Moral Majority is long gone, and the Christian Coalition is not nearly as powerful as it was just a decade ago. But for those who cherish secular government and the separation of church and state that should be scant comfort. Consider just this past week Harriet Miers was forced to drop her nomination to the Supreme Court because of pressure from the extreme right. And what are the right wing extremists most concerned about? That Miers might prove to be too soft on the abortion issue, which is the jewel in the crown of those politicized evangelicals and their allies, who wrap their politics in, and fuel it, with very conservative religion.
From restricting a woman’s reproduction freedom, to assaulting gays, to attempting to replace evolution with non-scientific, supernaturalist assumptions, to attempting to bring back prayer to the schools and censoring textbooks, the discontents of these religious crusaders is long, and their campaigns are zealous, stridently ideological, and well organized. Yet, from their point of view, religious conservatives oddly enough see themselves, or at least posture themselves, as victims; victims of a secular society and a secular government and secular values, which are empty, not only of God, but of positive moral content. And because of the vacuum created by the emptiness of secular values, our society is filled with an “anything goes” sensibility, which rushes in to full that vacuum. It is a condition that allegedly invites permissiveness and licentiousness, out of control sexuality, sleazy entertainment, rampant drug use, and a weakened America unable to confidently stand up to international threats. It has turned the world of religious conservative upside down, by legitimating non-normative forms of sexuality, empowering women who, from time immemorial, have appropriately submitted to patriarchy, and by ostensibly removing God and religion from the public square. The enemy of religious conservatives goes by the names of relativism, liberalism, or “secular humanism.”
At the ideological pinnacle of the campaign of religious conservatives has been the effort to destroy the Jeffersonian wall of separation been church and state. What such conservatives want is to replace church/state separation with a doctrine of religious accommodation or support by the state. This, they, claim is what the Constitution requires and what the Founding Fathers intended.
The First Amendment of the US Constitution has, of course, two religion clauses, which outline the appropriate and legal relationship between church and state. On the one hand, Congress, or more broadly the government, is not to establish religion, but on the other hand, it may not prohibit the free exercise of religion. For Thomas Jefferson, following the English political theorist, John Locke, this meant that the Constitution had created “a wall of separation between church and state.” This construction was reinserted for the first time in the lexicon of the Supreme Court 144 years later in a landmark case Everson v. Board of Education, when Justice Hugo Black invoked it, while noting that the government may not support religion, may not favor one religion over another, and may not favor religion over irreligion and vice versa. In other words, Justice Black affirmed in unequivocal terms, that the state must maintain a stance of neutrality among the religions, and between religion and non-religion, thus also underscoring that the government of the United States is secular.
Black’s doctrine, until the emergence of the Rehnquist Court, has served as the normative doctrine defining the relationship between church and state. It is the doctrine which, in my view, comports with the intentions of the Founders, is the most practical in keeping us safe from religious tyranny, and is worth militantly defending. But it is this doctrine of state neutrality that is also the bugaboo of the religious right. Their contention is that this is not what the Constitution of the United States requires, and moreover a stance of neutrality between religion and non-religion is chimerical and impossible, because a state which strives to be neutral and secular between religion and non-religion in its effect is a state which is hostile to religion. While all but a few extraordinary extremists will agree that the non-Establishment clause of the First Amendment bars the creation of an official American church, like the Church of England, this is all that it bars. In their view, the only purpose of the religion clauses is not to protect the state from religion, but protect religion from the state.
Hence, government support of religion is fine, as long as the state is evenhanded, so they say, and doesn’t discriminate between one religion and another. It is this doctrine of state accommodation that justifies such initiatives as school vouchers to support children going to religious schools, the placing of religious icons, including the Ten Commandments, on public lands, the initiative to bring back prayer to the schools, the exempting of religious building from restrictive codes, and most notorious of all the “faith-based initiative” which gives away billions of dollars in public money directly to churches for the sake of providing social services.
State support for religion, as long as it doesn’t discriminate among religions, in reality is a dangerous idea and a few short years of its implementation in the Bush administration clearly demonstrates why the doctrine does not work, and why the wall of separation needs to be rebuilt.
In general, there has been no end in American history of the different religious sects trying to get their hands on government power, including government money. Those Christian evangelicals, who are calling for government support of religion, really mean their religion, and not others, despite the niceties of government non-discrimination written into the laws. For their view, which they aggressive promote, is that the United States is a Christian nation, and our democracy and our founding documents are based on biblical principles. Hence the push for the Ten Commandments in schools and courthouses, and not statues of the Buddha or Lord Krishna. And even more dramatically, of the hundreds of millions of dollars given to churches under the “charitable choice” initiative of the Bush administration, every single dollar has gone to evangelical churches, and not a single dollar to a synagogue, mosque or ashram. Destroy the wall of separation, and what you get is not government evenhandedness, but government largesse to the political powerful and politically favored religions. In other words, exactly what you would expect.
Despite the cynicism and power grabbing, I would like to examine on their own terms some of the claims of the religious right, on the premise, that it serves one well to know who your enemy is and where they are coming from.
As to the argument that the United States is a Christian nation, in some sense, this is true. But in a legal sense, in a way that is directly relevant to the church/state issue, it is false. Clearly, nearly all the citizens of the United States at the time of the Revolution were Christians, and in particular Protestants. Today at least 85% of all Americans call themselves Christians of some sort, which means that the United States is numerically more Christian than, for instance, Israel is Jewish. And while Protestants may today comprise barely half of all Americans, Protestant sensibilities still remain broadly dominant in America, which is probably something more obvious to non-Protestants, than Protestants themselves. Indeed, we have had only one non-Protestant president, and no non-Christian, and it was as late as 1931 that the Supreme Court still averred that “we are a Christian nation”; this at a time when Louis Brandeis was sitting on the Court. . Though it may not be initially apparent, for example, the Ethical Culture Society, which is by design non-theistic, in its structure is modeled on Protestant sensibilities.
While it is undeniable that the United States has been comprised of a Christian majority, and this fact certainly informs American culture, from the perspective of legal and public purposes this fact is irrelevant. It should be no more legally relevant than saying that the majority of Americans have been and are white. The Constitution nowhere mentions nor favors the Christian religion, nor any religion, nor religion over non-religion. No less an authority as George Washington assured the Jewish congregation of Newport that the United States is in no way founded on the Christian religion. If anything, the United States is becoming increasingly more religious pluralistic, with influxes of Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and others. 14%, and still growing, are those who define themselves as humanists, non-religious or freethinkers. The realities of pluralism alone, speak to the wisdom of the legal neutrality of the government toward any religious sect or worldview, despite their prominence in American history. History and culture are one thing, legality and what is practical and prudent given our diverse reality is another. It is quite horrifying that as America is becoming more diverse religiously, we seeing the initiative of Christian religious zealots seeking to make evangelical Christianity legally dominant. It’s the perfect formula for political repression and inter-religious strife.
But what of the claims that the Founding Fathers were Christians and that the United States and its democracy are founded on Christian principles? This could be dismissed as simply silly if it weren’t so widespread and becoming deeply entrenched. It proves the old adage that if you repeat something over and over enough times, people will believe.
In a certain sense, all the founders of the American were Protestant Christians, but Christians of a very particular sort. All of them were products of the European Enlightenment, which had greatly liberalized Christianity though the winnowing power of reason. The majority were deists, who resisted the notions of a personal God who intervenes to change the course of nature and human affairs. For them, God was a clockmaker God, who created the world, filled it with Newtonian laws and then retired, while the world unfolded according the regularities of nature. So Jefferson continuously referred to the “Nature and Nature’s laws” and Washington, who almost never mentioned Jesus, referred to God as “the Grand Architect of the Universe.” While not atheists, the founders certainly had more in common with contemporary humanists than they did with contemporary evangelicals and fundamentalists. They would have been horrified that their thought personas and thought had been appropriated and exploited by such hucksters as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.
That our democracy and laws derive from Christianity is patently absurd. The bible promotes theocracy and knows nothing of democracy. If Christianity is the basis for democracy, why for the first 1,700 years of the Christian era, did European Christianity live in medieval oppression, as severe and unfree as any Asiatic despotism? When democracy does emerge on Christian soil in the 17th century, it has far more to do with the creation of scientific, natural and secular principles, which echoed with the values of the ancient pagan philosophers. If one wants to look for the intellectual inspiration for the American democratic republic, one would do much better to mine the sources of Cicero, Seneca, Pliny and Tacitus than the Christian Bible. It was these thinkers and their Enlightenment expositors that comprised the core curricula of the universities in early America. It was no less a personage than John Adams, perhaps more religiously conservative than his fellow Founders, who said that political constitutions were wholly secular enterprises free of godly involvement or inspiration. In his own words, he stated with great approval “The United States of America is the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature.” Again, it was the worldview of the Age of Reason, which forged American democracy, and not Christian principles.
But, I need to return to the issue of government neutrality between religion and non religion, because it is this aspect of the church/state separation which inspires and legitimates the rightwing initiative to tear down the wall of separation.
In looking at the arguments of conservatives in their own terms, they have certainly struck a cord, and if I strain to look very hard, I can see where they are coming from. Let me explain what I mean.
It was the early 18th century English thinker, John Locke, who served as the most influential inspiration for the idea of separation church from state. The religious wars of Europe which were occasioned by the Protestant reformation, were simply unprecedented their violence. From the early 16th century through the mid 17th century, Europe drenched itself in the blood of Catholic and Protestants. Nor was England spared the horrific bloodletting. It was Locke, himself a pious member of the Church of England, who helped to create the modern democratic state, and pivotal to modern democracy was tolerance among the different religious sects. History had shown that when religious zeal was married to the power of the state, the ominous result was an explosive and toxic brew of unprecedented, destructive proportions. Locke’s solution was the attempt to privatize religion, and declare that within the private sphere of religion a person should be free to believe as he wished. In his own words, Locke’s mission was “to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion, and to settle the just bounds between the one and the other.” In other words, the state had its business which was to preserve the rights of citizens, which was public business. And then there was the realm of religion in which a person could pursue his salvation as he pleased, being a matter between a man and his God exclusively, and therefore simply beyond the concern of the state or the magistrate. By making religioun free of binding creeds enforced by the state, the state did not invade the private sanctum of religious conscience, and religion kept its hands off the state and state power. There are two realms, the sacred and the secular, and if each stays where it belongs, then we have a brilliant formula for public peace.
It was this scheme that Jefferson and Madison picked up, and had enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Following Locke, it was Jefferson who said in his Notes on Virginia: “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg.” In other words, the theological conscience of my neighbor is his private business, and has no bearing on me, and is outside the range of the interests of the state. When my neighbor does me physically harm, however, that is a public issue, which the state legitimately has an interest in regulating, punishing and so forth.
This sounds very compelling, but there are problems with it. Michael McConnell, who is a federal judge on the Court of Appeals, a conservative legal scholar, and is on Bush’s second tier list of Supreme Court nominees, makes a very interesting observation. And that is that as long as religion remains in the private sphere, exclusively as a matter of religious conscience, there would be no overlap and no conflict with the state. Both would remain within their own place, and separation of church and state is easy to achieve. But McConnell argues that both Locke and Jefferson misunderstand how religion operates, and at least in this sense, I think he is right. There is something about religion that often resists remaining private. Religion has the impulse to express itself publicly. There is the question of religious belief, which strictly speaking is private, and then there is the manifestation of that religious belief which tends to be very public. There is a direct continuum between the religious belief I hold and my action in the world.
If as a matter of religious conscience, I believe that God has commanded humankind to have dominion over the earth, I am going to be poised toward the environment in a way which is very different than if God commands us to be stewards of the earth. What happens when my religion tells me to keep my head covered, but the military tells me my head needs to be bare? What happens when my religious conscience compels me to use mind-altering substances as part of sacrament, but the state prohibits it? The list of places where religious conscience, once actualized, and the laws of the state overlap and conflict are legion. If one takes a strong position that religion must be private, as militant atheists and secularists do, when religious practice conflicts with the laws of the state, then the public law supervenes at the expense of religion, and the religious believer is at a disadvantage.
Moreover, if the American state is secular, which it is, the person who is of a secular world-view, so it is argued by the religious conservative, can move from the private realm of his belief into the public sphere with the greatest of ease, and gives up nothing. The religious believer, on the other hand, in order to move into the public sphere, has to check his religious convictions at the door. The fact that the state is secular and religion is private means that the religious believer is a second-class citizen. When he moves into the public realm he needs to don another secular persona, which the person who is secular by conviction does not have to do. The secular person is ideologically at home in a secular state; the person of deeply religious motives is like a resident alien in his own country.
It is this allegedly second class status that enables those on the religious right to claim the role of victim in contemporary America, and which fuels their initiative to destroy the secular state, and replace it with a religious pluralism in which religions are supported by the state. As Michael McConnell says, what he would like to see is an America that is not officially secular, but which is a Protestant country to the Protestants, a Catholic country to the Catholics and Jewish country to the Jews, (and we presume an atheist country to the atheists).
It seems to me that any religion that needs to be bolstered by the power of the state is by that fact alone badly corrupted religion, and assuredly lacking in self-confidence. Moreover, how such an arrangement would work in practice, I haven’t a clue, and its apologists seldom elaborate. Implicit in McConnell’s model is the notion that there is such a thing as a monolithic Protestantism, or Catholicism, or Judaism. But this is assuredly false. Religionists within these denominations are continually at odds with themselves as to what Protestantism or Judaism means. They can barely accommodate themselves, so it simply eludes me as to how the state could accommodate thems as well as thousands of other religious sects that flourish within the United States. McConnell’s vision seems to me to be a nightmare of religious strife as each sect connives to win state support and state money.
These are, nevertheless, powerful arguments that have gotten lots of traction, not only among the masses of Christian conservatives, but among politicians and judges.
But in my view, they are dangerous ideas, which are based on significant fallacies.
While it would be true that people of serious religious conscience and practice would be at a disadvantage if the religion were totally relegated to the private sphere (as perhaps Locke and Jefferson assumed it could and should be) this is assuredly not the case.
In my own assessment of religion, I see religion taking three identifiable forms of expression. There is the realm of religious conscience; there is the realm of religious and sectarian doctrine, institutions and practice; and in between these there is what we might call religiously inspired action.
In my view when it comes to religious belief exclusively, this is and ought to be completely free of state interest. It is totally private. In other words, the state has absolutely no interest in whether I believe in 20 gods, no god or choose to worship door knobs, the devil or Jennifer Lopez. Government should neither support my belief in any way, nor violate my belief.
When it comes to religious institutions, doctrines and practices, here too, there needs to be a separation of church of state. Religion and the churches may not use the arms of state, or public money, to further their own doctrines, teaching, institutions or have their doctrines or practices become public law. Consequently, I see no place for government support of churches, religious schools, or religious practices such as government sponsored or directed prayer. But neither may government be hostile to religion. Very often these two principles — of non-support and free expression — run interference with each other, and the court has to do a balancing act. Sometimes public law will supervene over religious expression; sometimes the public law will bend and give space to the freedom of religious expression. This game of compromise comes into effect whenever competing rights and interests conflict, and I don’t see how it could be any other way. Co-religionists have the right to practice their religion by singing Gregorian chants, but they can’t do it on my front lawn at 3:00 in the morning. If the public law constrains religion in this regard, it is difficult for me to see how the state is being hostile to religion or privileging secularism. It is simply attempting in its intent to balance conflicting public needs and interests.
There is a third type of religious expression, which I thoroughly support. I do believe that our society does permit and should permit what I call religiously motivated action. I make a differentiation between church and state, on the one hand, which must remain separate, and religion and politics, on the other. Whereas the religions may not use the arms of state to enforce its own doctrine, I believe that there is a place for religiously inspired action in the political and public arena. I believe that religious individuals and religious groups can attempt to influence government and change laws with ideas derived from their religious traditions as long as parallel secular arguments can be made to support the same position. In other words, they are not exclusively religious. Though I stridently disagree with the efforts of the Catholic Church and Protestant evangelicals to overturn Roe v. Wade, I do believe they have a right to try to do so, just as I and other groups, religious and secular, have a right to oppose them in the public arena. There are public arguments, both pro and con, with regard to abortion and I do believe it would be hostile and prejudicial to religion to deny it a place in society as a political actor. Moreover, if I were to deny the right of evangelicals to bring their religious inspired causes into the political arena, then I have to be likewise prepared to deny that role, let’s say, to Martin Luther King, whose politics were deeply embedded in his religious faith and values, and whose politics I admired.
It is because I see a place for religious groups on the political stage, (as long as they don’t attempt to make their religiously specific doctrines and practices the law of the land) that I have long felt that the complaint of religious conservatives that they are victimized by the secular state to be overstated and a red herring.
Likewise, I think the state’s stance of neutrality, between religion and non-religion, although often a balancing at, does not per se favor secularism, or is it hostile to religion. If the government were to establish an official ideology of secularism, as is the case in France, or of atheism, as was the case in the Soviet Union, then the religious conservatives would have a tangible point. I would oppose the inculcation of atheism or secularism as a discrete doctrine in the public schools as I currently oppose the inculcation of religious doctrine. But this is not the case. The government of the United States may be secular, but this is not the same thing as being secularist, in which secularism is understood as a positive ideology, which competes with the religions. The secular character of our government is not an ideology or a world-view. It is rather a method by which to adjudicate in a rational way between competing religious and ideological interests in a society which is intensely religious and increasingly diverse. If religious people feel that this solution to the problem of the relationship of church and state is wanting, then I dare say that what they propose in terms of government support for the diverse religions is many times worse. It seems to me a mask for power grabbing which should make us all uneasy.
Finally, in my view the amalgamation of religion with the state is predicated on another fallacy writ large, which is amplified into propaganda. Behind the move for government support of religion, is the assumption that religion can only be a force for good. This presumption is fed by a general ignorance of history that is characteristic of Americans, and a deep lying naiveté about the goodness of human nature. Europeans are not so naïve. Europe is virtually a post –religious society, and for understandable reasons. Europeans, who have been consumed by two world wars in which the Catholic Church was aligned with the forces of fascism and other churchmen did little or nothing to stop the bloodletting, have little reason to trust the benevolence of religious claims nor, moreover, religious leaders.
Neither were our Founding Fathers so naïve. They knew well that when the stakes are as high as eternal salvation in heaven, men will readily kill for their religious ideas, if ever they get there hands on the reigns of power. Thomas Jefferson’s famous words enshrined in the Jefferson memorial “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man” were not directed at King George or other political tyrants. They were directed at priests, more specifically the clergy of Philadelphia. Whatever one can say about the Founding fathers view of religion, especially in its historical manifestations, it certainly was not one of untrammeled goodness.
Our country was born, and democracy sustained, on the idea that power concentrated in the hands of a few is the greatest enemy of freedom. And so the founders created a system in which the power of government would be divided into branches, each in restless contention with each other and each checking the power of the other. But even more, they feared the marriage of the power of religion, with its penchant for intolerance born of absolute truth, with the repressive power of the state. The separation of church and state is greatest gift deeded by the Founders to future generations including our own. It took two centuries to prod the tiger into the cage. We let it out again at our greatest peril.
Dr. Joseph Chuman
30 October 2005