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.


Insanity wins: Churchill wrongfully terminated

April 2, 2009

Ward Churchill, who was fired from his job as CU professor in 2007, sued CU for wrongful termination on First Amendment grounds. The jury found in his favor today, saying that Churchill’s speech (his infamous 9/11 essay) was one of the reasons CU fired him, and according to the law speech can play no part in the decision to fire a state employee.

This verdict stretches credulity. One could argue that the investigation of Churchill’s works began as a result of the uproar over his 9/11 essay. The timing of it certainly doesn’t look coincidental. The thing is, an investigation does not mean that Churchill’s termination was inevitable. The process took 2 years. Had Churchill shown real scholarship in his work the investigative committees would have had no reason to recommend his ouster, and the regents would have had little justification to do so. Yet the jury was convinced that while his essay was not the only reason he was fired, it was one of them, hence their verdict.

I followed the coverage of the trial a little bit, listening to Caplis & Silverman occasionally. Silverman noted during the trial that all of the jurors were under the age of 30. That concerned me, and my worst fears were vindicated. I listened to Caplis & Silverman today, and supposedly (it could not be confirmed at the time) one of the jurors called in. Dan Caplis had been gloating during the show today that while the jury voted in favor of Churchill, they only awarded him $1 in damages. He took this to mean that while CU lost, they had seen through Churchill’s charade and saw him for what he was: an academic fraud. The supposed juror who called in said this had nothing to do with the decision on damages. She said the jurors couldn’t make up their minds what to award him. Most of the jurors wanted to give him some amount, but one did not, and was apparently adamant about it. She said they spent several hours just on this subject. It sounded like they ultimately broke down and decided to award Churchill nothing just to get the matter overwith. The supposed juror said she couldn’t see why the legal system was asking them to make this decision anyway. They asked the judge if $0 was okay. The judge instructed that $1 was the minimum if they decided in favor of Churchill, and so that’s what they awarded. It was a cop out.

The supposed juror sounded confused and in over her head. When Caplis and Silverman asked her questions it was difficult for her to give a coherent answer. She said that the jury felt that their only job was to determine if Churchill had been fired because of his essay, and they didn’t consider other factors. It sounded like they found the credibility of CU’s witnesses suspect. She said she believed Churchill when he gave his testimony, and while she didn’t agree with all of his controversial 9/11 essay, she thought “he made some good points.” Unbelievable. She said the jurors reviewed the investigative committee report on Churchill’s plagiarism and academically unethical practices. She said she agreed with a couple things in the report, but she thought they nit-picked the rest, and she didn’t think that the violations cited in the report that she agreed with warranted his firing.

Apparently some of the fault for this falls on CU. I feel like they dropped the ball, like their attention has been diverted to other matters, and they didn’t consider this trial a priority. It looks like they didn’t do their due diligence in selecting a competent jury. I didn’t get a sense that the supposed juror who called in was competent to deal with the subject matter of the trial. She was only receptive to simple arguments, and lacked critical thinking skills.

This clip kind of reflects what a joke I think this trial was:

The Chewbacca Defense

Anyway, a separate hearing will be held to determine whether Churchill will be reinstated at CU, or the judge may just decide not to reinstate, but rather give him a lump sum. If Churchill is reinstated it’s going to be egg on CU’s face. In that case, how could CU be taken seriously again?

Not that anyone from CU administration is listening, but my one word of advice to them is the next time they receive complaints about the academic performance of their faculty, they should act to investigate it promptly rather than sit on it, which has been their modus operandi until this blew up in their face four years ago. Evidence of problems with Churchill’s scholarship had been mounting for years. The record that Caplis & Silverman were able to uncover through public document requests showed that Phil DiStephano yucked it up every time a complaint about Churchill came to his attention. He was apparently happy that Churchill was drawing the spotlight, perhaps bringing attention to CU in a sick sort of way. DiStephano had been helping Churchill advance his career at CU, until the controversy erupted. I shouldn’t single him out. The CU Administration has shown itself to be kind of like the Keystone Kops (again, no offense to the town of Keystone), stumbling into this investigation when they felt overwhelming public pressure. Maybe this will teach them a lesson? Are they learning the right lesson? Maybe not. A sad state of affairs indeed.