Understanding the separation of church and state

January 2, 2015

Often when we think about the separation of church and state, we think about the issues of the government wanting to restrict use of public facilities by religious groups, and not allowing them to erect religious symbols on public property at Christmastime, or forbidding a high school valedictorian from invoking God or Jesus during their graduation speech. Thinking on this lately, I’ve come to a different conclusion about it.

I’ve been talking with a group of people who are interested in an education project, a component of which is to bring back a proper education of American citizens, so they will understand something of what it means to be a citizen of the American republic, since our public education system has thrown that aside.

There is, I think, a need for philosophical, epistemological, and ethical clarity. It’s ironic to me now that we have in effect a state religion coming into effect in this country, with no officially recognized church or canon, though the church is in plain sight: the government itself. The high priesthood is the academics in our universities, with our media personalities being the lay priests. It’s invisible to most, because it doesn’t categorize itself as a religion. The only way I know of to recognize it is from an anthropological perspective (though, as I’ll attest, one doesn’t have to be a scholar of that subject to see it). The only hint we get of it out in the open is when we see certain leftists say that unless we’re willing to have the government give money to the poor–which they will say is the “charitable” thing to do–we shouldn’t call ourselves a Christian nation. Or, like Rep. Nancy Pelosi said, we should welcome the illegal immigrants who came in last year, because, “That’s the Christian thing to do, to give them shelter.”

Particularly with the gay marriage issue, I’ve told people on the Left that, “This is the reason we have a First Amendment, and separation of church (I’m referring to their church) and state, to protect freedom of conscience.” The cases of states going after Christian businesses, such as photographers and bakeries, have been ones where the Left has had an easy time, due to the principle of public accommodation, but to me it’s religious persecution by a different name. I’m not opposed to gay people entering into legally recognized relationships, but the people they’re going after mean them no harm. They should not be treated like civil rights violators.

When the Left talks about the need to have government programs to help the poor, I’ve come to the realization that they’re talking the same way that a Christian minister would to their congregation, calling on them to be charitable. When they talk about the evils of discrimination, they’re talking like a minister who calls on their congregation to recognize everyone as God’s children. If you take out references to scripture, and any religious terms, that’s what it is! I have told some on the Left that this is the sort of thing I’d expect to hear in church, not from my government, and certainly not as part of a political campaign.

I think it’s fine for politicians to invoke God, or any other supernatural being they choose in their speeches, to say things like, “God bless America,” and to talk about their personal faith, but when they admonish people to “be charitable” by agreeing to raise taxes, and have the government engaged in social spending, or subverting government policy that’s laid out in our law, excusing it as “the Christian thing to do,” or any other religious excuse, I think people should recognize that these people are stepping over a civic line. Charity is a religious and ethical concept, not a political one. If our government grants money, say, to a foreign government, or grants foreign aid, it should be recognized as a tool of foreign policy, something that advances the state’s interests in carrying out its requirements with respect to other nations. Likewise, money spent domestically by our government should be seen as a tool of domestic political policy, something that, again, advances the state’s interests, hopefully in carrying out its charter’s requirements. That’s what “separation of church and state” really means. It’s not just neutering religion by taking out any religious narrative, and any references to the supernatural, but leaving in all of the moral codes and requirements, and transferring it into politics and policy. It’s separating the ethical and moral admonishments, and requirements of religion from politics and policy. This applies equally to the Bush Administration’s “faith-based” initiatives, creating government subsidies that fund religious charities.

I think we should also be clear that it’s not about excluding religious groups from using public property, forbidding religious speech on the same, forbidding religious symbols on the same on holidays, or even forbidding religiously themed monuments on it. It is about forbidding the imposition of policies that are hostile to, or I’d even say a substitute for, the free exercise of one’s conscience. I think that no act of conscience should be forbidden, so long as it does not violate the natural rights of others, nor damage government property, nor impede the ability of the government to defend anyone’s rights. These days we forget that we have a duty to respect the right of other Americans to act according to their conscience, even if it offends us.

Separation of church and state is about keeping the qualities of religion squarely in society, and not in government policy, and likewise keeping government out of the business of religion.

Another Republican I won’t be voting for

May 15, 2011

Well, this pretty well seals it. I’m not voting for Newt Gingrich for the Republican nomination, and I’m not voting for Mitt Romney, either, for the same reason. Gingrich said on Meet The Press today that he backs an individual mandate, requiring every American to buy health insurance, though it sounds like he just doesn’t like the way it’s done in the Obama health care bill. It doesn’t matter. I still don’t like his idea. Saying that people should have health insurance makes sense, particularly for catastrophic situations, heart attack, cancer, etc., but “should” is not the same as “must.” “Should” is a suggestion. Saying that people must have it so that everyone can afford it, as Gingrich did, is BS. It’s an overreach of government. People should buy the insurance they think they need, and insurance should act like insurance, to deal with the consequences of risks. Health insurance should not be another name for managed care.

What’s going on with inflation?

May 2, 2011

Edit 5-4-11: Decided to change the title of this post, adding the “?”, since I realized Dick Morris’s article is more an opinion piece.

Dick Morris has a good column today on “How the Feds conceal inflation.” He not only talks about the “lying with statistics” that’s going on. He also mentions what is causing the increased prices that consumers are generally seeing.

He said that if we use the same standard that we used to measure inflation in 1980, after the Carter years, then our annual inflation rate would be measured at 10% right now. I’ve been thinking for a while that the predicted problems with inflation were overblown, that it’ll be like the 1970s, but Morris is saying it will be different, because the problem is different. He said that before, the problem was the textbook definition of inflation: too much money chasing too few goods. Demand increases while supply remains the same. Now he says the problem is there’s a “price push” on the goods we buy. I looked this up, and apparently what “price push” means is that demand remains constant, but supply decreases. Therefor prices increase without increased demand. It’s the opposite problem.

Morris says that increasing interest rates now will not help this situation, though it was the solution to the inflation problem of the 1970s. He doesn’t say what the solution for this is, but I suspect it has to do with decreasing taxes and regulation, and I’d imagine decreasing the rate of federal spending, because public debt is crowding out private credit. I’d imagine that if the Fed increased interest rates we would likely see out-of-control inflation, because banks would be more motivated to lend into the private economy. This would increase supply over the long term, but also increase demand in the short term. This would force the Fed to increase interest rates higher to try to contain the increase in demand. Morris has said we’re entering a stagflationary period, but I can see now how it could get really bad.

Samuelson on the debt situation

April 25, 2011

Here are a couple good articles by Robert J. Samuelson. He’s of the same opinion as myself: The federal government is suicidal, and Obama is not helping matters.

“Big government on the brink”

“Obama abdicates on the budget”

Though Samuelson doesn’t say this, I think a big reason the Republicans have been so timid on budget cutting, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, is that despite their tough talk about it, the Democrats have set up the budget rules such that if there’s a government shutdown, soldiers will not receive paychecks. This was not the case when the government shutdown happened with Clinton in the 1990s. The military is a major Republican constituency, and they’d catch hell from their base for denying pay to soldiers (though they would be reimbursed once the shutdown ended). Michele Bachmann introduced a bill in the most recent budget battle to change the rules so that soldiers would continue to be paid in the event of a shutdown. Obama shot that down, saying he would veto it if it came to him. He understood what was going on, and he was not going to take the pressure off Republicans to backtrack on their demands. In the end, there was effectively no budget cut for this year, with about $300 billion in cuts spread out over the next few years, of money that was appropriated in ’10, but hadn’t been spent yet. What would be done with the unspent money was not discussed in public. Perhaps it would reduce the debt a little, but the amount is paltry compared to the size of the problem.

Some Tea Party Republicans voted against the deal that was ultimately reached, because they wanted much larger cuts, but there weren’t enough of them to force the issue.

The big “budget drama” that Republicans say will be coming, probably in May, in raising the debt ceiling is likely going to end the same way. Little change, and for the same reason. The Democrats have equalized the field, and said, “If you’re going to hurt our constituents, we’re going to hurt yours, too,” and the Republican majority in the House has been revealed as having no spine. The current congress is not up to the challenge.

Another financial crisis looms

December 22, 2010

“60 Minutes” recently did a piece on the financial situation of state and local governments. What we could be looking at is another financial meltdown in the U.S., caused by municipal government bond defaults. What this story suggests is that when this happens (Meredith Whitney, a financial analyst who was interviewed for this piece, said we will see 50-100+ significant municipal bond defaults in the next 12 months), it will have been caused by benefit and pension obligations that states are now legally bound to honor for state and municipal employee unions. The financial losses for bondholders will be in the hundreds of billions of dollars, unless they are bailed out by the federal government (states don’t have the reserves to cover these losses, for the most part), and it’s looking like the federal government is not going to come to the rescue this time. It’s got its own financial problems. This will not only have implications for local services that are currently offered, it will also negatively affect the financial markets. It sounds like the financial sector (big banks) will be one of the sectors hit again, since they are significant holders of municipal bonds. This is advanced warning so that we can prepare for another financial collapse. I suggest we take heed.

Great analysis on local government

December 10, 2010

This is an excellent article on how our municipal governments have evolved over time, and how the incident in Bell, CA. was a kind of “canary in the coal mine” moment:

“How the Road to Bell Was Paved”, by William Voegeli, City Journal

I think this explains a lot about how Boulder city government and the local school board operate. I don’t know this for fact, but I don’t think we have the sort of overpaid salary problems that Bell had. That’s not the reason I’m recommending you read it. What’s important is the history that led to this incident, because it affects many, if not all cities across the country.

Obama acting unpresidential

December 8, 2010

Obama came out yesterday to announce that he had come to an agreement with the Republicans in congress to keep the Bush tax cuts on a temporary basis, to cut the payroll tax, to raise the estate tax (though less than he wanted), and to extend unemployment benefits for another year. I hate saying this, because I think it is good that the government not overtax, but I don’t see what’s responsible about this. I can see not raising taxes on small businesses, so as to not cause more damage than the Democrats have already done. Hopefully as the economy recovers they’ll hire more people. The top 1% I have no opinion about. I wouldn’t mind seeing their taxes raised.

Social Security and Medicare are not solvent at this point, and so cutting the payroll tax doesn’t help there. It will provide relief to the poor and middle class, though. I’m sure there are some people out there who will be thankful for that.

I haven’t liked the principle of the estate tax. This is money that has likely already been taxed once. If anything it should be taxed at the gift rate, because that’s essentially what it is.

Unemployment insurance has been funded more or less for two years now. I heard from one small business that their unemployment insurance fee had gone up 80% from two years ago. This insurance was designed to be temporary. It’s turning into another welfare program. It’s not that I want to see people struggle. Rather, I want people who need an income to work for it. That’s part of what will get this economy going again. Unfortunately there’s a lot of fraud in the unemployment insurance program, because the government doesn’t have the staff to check up on everybody. Secondly, I’ve been hearing stories about people who have had opportunities to work, but who haven’t because it’s not the job they want, or it pays less than what they’re getting in insurance. This needs to stop, but I guess it won’t.

I shouldn’t heap all of the blame on the President. The Republicans are in on this as well. I would be more approving if I saw something that gave me assurances that they were going to tackle the big programs that are eating the federal budget alive, as well.

I am worried about the government’s fiscal situation. Something has got to give. In January, when the new congress will come into session, ALL of the tax revenue for this fiscal year will already have been claimed by Social Security, Medicare, and interest on the debt. In fact, the tax revenue will not even cover all of that. Some money had to be borrowed this year just to pay Social Security benefits. That’s the first time that’s happened in 30 years. Every single piece of discretionary spending next year will have to be borrowed! The funding for the basic functions of government, funding for the military (our wars), education, the various departments of government, etc.–ALL OF IT–will have to be borrowed. This is serious. Either the government needs to figure out a way to raise revenue for its programs, or the programs need to be cut. This is one reason the decision to keep the Bush tax rates concerns me, because with the exception of trying to stop Obamacare (a move I don’t object to at all), I haven’t heard from the Republicans that they’re going to work on cutting Medicare, which is the next biggest fiscal train wreck coming down the pike. What also concerns me is that many of the Tea Party members, who are now a force to be reckoned with in the Republican Party, don’t seem to have a handle on what’s going on with the government’s budget. It seems like they’re satisfied with the oncoming train wreck, just getting there at a slower pace. They want Obamacare repealed (which is fine by me), but most of them don’t want Medicare cut at all. To me this is missing the point. Even if the Democrats had not passed the health care bill this year, and the “stimulus” and bailout bills last year, Medicare would still be a looming fiscal problem. Social Security is another looming problem. It’s not as big as the problem with Medicare, but there’s going to come a day of reckoning for it as well. It is not actuarially sound at this point.

What really got me steamed, though (this is the reason I named this post “Obama acting unpresidential”), was when Obama was asked why he agreed to this deal over the objections of his own left wing base. He said that you don’t want to negotiate with hostage takers unless the hostages are going to get hurt. In case you need this spelled out, the “hostage takers” in this scenario are the Republicans (who, by the way, were elected by a majority of voters), and the “hostages” are “the American people.” Gee, that makes a lot of sense! We were stupid enough to elect criminals, or even terrorists to office in government, and now they’re holding us “hostage”! Wow, Mr. President. Now I see how little respect you have for the voters, and for the democratic process. Yes, I know you want to take care of us. We’re so daft that we can’t take care of ourselves, but being stupid we keep doing inept stuff like protesting the policies you’ve crafted to make sure we’re safe and sound, and we keep voting in people who vote against your caring graces, which prevents you from doting over us. You take pity on us, because we’re so F-ING STUPID TO YOU!!! Yes, well you know where you can shove your arrogance!

Mr. President, this is really beneath your office to say this about your opposition. I know this was red meat to your left wing base, who are crying in their wine glasses (or their lattes) over this, but it was beneath the dignity of the office you hold. Get a grip and do your job, which you were elected to do! I don’t care who’s president, or who’s in the congress. The president should not compare his (or her) opposition to criminals, or terrorists, unless of course they really deserve it (if they’ve broken the law). Some have said this doesn’t foster an atmosphere of bipartisanship. Well that’s an understatement! I know O’Reilly laughed this off last night, but I think it represented an international incident. He admitted for all to hear that he was readily willing to negotiate in a situation if hostage takers were demanding ransom, and were going to hurt their captives. Well I wouldn’t be surprised to see some Islamists take that cue and take some hostages to call him on it.

President Obama should apologize, both to the Republicans in congress, and to the American people. I am sure the Republicans will not demand this, as they’re glad to get this compromise, but I would sure like to see it, as I found this offensive.