Opinion: Church-state wall: For America and religion
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Irvine resident Fritz Mehrtens responds to The Times’ Feb. 29 Op-Ed article, ‘Reinforcing the church-state wall.’ If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed and would like to participate in Blowback, here are our FAQs and submission policy.
Yes, the wall of separation between church and state must be strengthened, as historian Jim Burkee points out. It strengthens Christianity by protecting it from the meddling hand of government and allows the freedom of thought necessary for a vibrant religious community.
But there are three other reasons for us to defend church-state separation today. Most important, this wall is part of our basic political culture, promoted by early religious leaders such as Baptist ministers John Leland and Isaac Backus well before Thomas Jefferson’s famous letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1801. It is embodied in our Constitution’s ban on religious tests for office and the 1st Amendment’s establishment clause. Church-state separation was very much in evidence when Alexis de Tocqueville toured America in the 1830s. He wrote in his 1835 work ‘Democracy in America’:
The American clergy stand aloof from secular affairs. This is the most obvious but not the only example of their self-restraint. In America religion is a distinct sphere, in which the priest is sovereign, but out of which he takes care never to go.
The principle became clear to me at the age of 10 when my father, a Protestant minister, publicly shouted down an attempt by the Roman Catholic majority in our town to use tax dollars to run their parochial grade school. That was in 1947.
Church-state separation prevents the religious majority from imposing their religious views on all via government edict, as some conservatives advocate today. These activists reinterpret history to proclaim that the Founding Fathers were motivated primarily by their religious convictions, even though no mention of Christianity or any other spiritual belief is found in the Constitution. Based on this historical revisionism, they push to legislate their particular religious beliefs (not shared by all Christians) on abortion, same-sex marriage, contraception, the teaching of evolution, assisted suicide, living wills and whatever other dogmas underlie the phrases ‘Judeo-Christian values’ or ‘biblical principles.’
But who knows how the Bible might be interpreted by a religious government? It might not be to their liking.
Practically, walling off government from religion -- that most emotion-driven of human endeavors and that most resistant to reason and tolerance -- simply makes good sense. It allows citizens of divergent beliefs to work together for the common good, confident that both are protected and neither will gain an advantage through religious affiliation. Thus, Baptists and Roman Catholics can work together to repair the economy and make sound public policy in a wide variety of areas without concern for the great theological divide between them. Thanks to our separation of church and state, America has not experienced the significant religious conflicts seen in other cultures; instead, we can all come together in support of the founding principles, which clearly specify tolerance for all religions and the promotion of none.
The imposition of religious dogma in government is by no means a conservative ideal. It eliminates freedom of conscience in matters such as abortion in favor of government edict, and curtails the individual liberties our founders sought and fought to protect.
All Americans should fully embrace the separation of church and state and the tolerance it embodies. The Constitution, our political and social culture and common sense require it.
-- Fritz Mehrtens