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.