Monday, November 1, 2010

The Separation of Church and State

What does that phrase really mean?

It does not appear in the Constitution. I would assume that it comes from the First Amendment, which prohibits government establishment of religion. I agree that any one religion should not be taught in the public schools as the right religion or the best religion. However, I feel that ignoring religion altogether will create entire generations of people who do not understand our roots and the foundation of our country, which, despite many people who say otherwise, began based on religious principles and the desire for religious freedom. That is to say, the freedom to practice whatever religion one decides.

In today's world, the first amendment seems to be taken to mean the freedom from religion.

I don't know about everyone else, but my religion is a big part of who I am. Most of my choices are founded in my religious beliefs, whether consciously or subconsciously. Many people base their decisions and their actions on their religious beliefs, or the lack thereof. I cannot separate my religious beliefs from who I am because I am my religion. It is the reason behind so much of how I view the world (all pessimism aside--my religion certainly doesn't teach that).

In conclusion, I guess what I'm getting at is the very idea of "separation of church and state" doesn't work, in the sense that a religious politician, or an anti-religious one, bases his or her decisions and platform on their beliefs, which stem from that. So the truth is that there really is no separation, as far as the individual is concerned.

What do you think?


Doug Indeap said...

I think your conclusion about separation of church and state not working is born of misconceptions about what the courts mean by that phrase.

Separation of church and state does not prevent citizens from making decisions and voicing opinions based on principles derived from their religions. Moreover, the religious beliefs of government officials naturally may inform their decisions on policies. In this context, the principle of separation of church and state merely constrains government officials not to make decisions with the predominant purpose or primary effect of advancing religion; in other words, the predominant purpose and primary effect must be nonreligious or secular in nature. A decision coinciding with religious views is not invalid for that reason as long as it has a secular purpose and effect.

Wake Forest University recently published a short, objective Q&A primer on the current law of separation of church and state--as applied by the courts rather than as caricatured in the blogosphere. I commend it to you.

Royalbird said...

Actually, the phrase "separation of church and state" was coined in a letter by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 in which he was reassuring Baptists that he would protect their right to exercise their religion. There was no legal binding effect of that letter. So the modern courts using that phrase to effectively divide the two so completely that in these modern times, it is almost unlawful to admit that you vote or do things based on religious reasons. Of course it's not really unlawful, but sometimes it certainly seems so. That is the point I'm trying to make.

I recall news stories within the last decade of children not even being allowed to pray personally in schools because of the separation of church and state. Does this mean that if I feel like uttering a blessing on my food while I'm eating at a restaurant and someone sees me quietly doing so that I might be told I can't do that in a public place because of the separation of church and state? In this country, it sure seems like such a thing is not so far off. That is the point I was getting at. Religious people are often criticized for choices they make and actions they take based on those religious principles because it "violates" the separation of Church and state, something that was never a legal term or even in the Constitution to begin with.

swedemom said...

I've always thought that a primary reason behind the separation of church and state is that the government wouldn't endorse or utilize one religion over another.

It makes sense when you consider that most European countries favored one religion as the state religion. Even Sweden had the Swedish church (the Lutherans) as the official state church and people were required to pay taxes and other things that supported the church, even if they personally didn't believe or belong to the religion. It was only recently that they changed this policy.

In the United States, where we have such a diversity of religious beliefs, I feel that this separation allows each individual to believe as they choose without feeling contraints from the government in one way or another.

It also provides an unbiased perspective. As Christians, wouldn't it be disturbing if our government began using Muslim teachings or principles to govern? Or vice versa? The point is that I think this separation allows religion to flourish in our country. It allows people to embrace a variety of religious beliefs and to practice those beliefs.

In European countries where state religions were the norm and the separation has just happened, there is a big correlation between that and religiousity in the country. Many Swedes are agnostic and are anti-religion precisely because of the lack of separation of church and state.

Should this separation be taken to extremes? No. One's personal rights to pray in school (privately and personally) shouldn't be attacked. But I don't agree that prayer should be mandatory or insisted upon. But people who want those things in their schools do have alternatives: charter schools, private schools and homeschool.

I have to say that combining religion with government makes me shudder. As a Mormon, you can bet that our beliefs wouldn't be respected or utilized in the government. I think separation of church and state also protects minority churches.

Royalbird said...

Yes, I agree with you, Swedemom. I'm just saying that in these modern times, it HAS been taken to the extreme to the point that if your actions are dictated by your religious beliefs, then somehow church and state are not separate. So in the individual person, I don't know that there is a separation, at least not in the way it seems to be defined in today's world. But the First Amendment was put in place exactly for the reason you described--so the country would not be governed by the precepts of one religion over another.


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