Wednesday, June 13, 2012

To Keep Government Out of Religion, Keep Religion Out of Government.

A recent NJ Star-Ledger letter-to-the-editor addressed the issue of Thomas Jefferson and his famous "Wall of Separation Between Church and State." In Understanding the "Wall of Separation", correspondent Ron Prykanowski wrote:

Contrary to the modern interpretation of his quotation, Jefferson’s “wall” was to keep government out of religion, not the other way around. The idea that if we allow religion in government we will become a theocracy is irrational. There are far more potent things to fear, such as the federal health care mandate that seeks to usurp our religious freedom.

Prykanowski seems to understand where Jefferson is coming from. For example he notes that "Although Jefferson had disdain for most religions, he was a champion of religious freedom." This is true, and he follows that up with this direct quote from Jefferson:

“All men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
But I think Prykanowski is off base in his "understanding"--or at least his terminology--concerning exactly what Jefferson intended. I left the following comment:

Posted by zemack 
onMay 31, 2012 at 9:28AM
The statement “Jefferson’s ‘wall’ was to keep government out of religion, not the other way around” never made any sense to me.
It’s true that the separation doctrine was not intended to bar religious people from participating in the political process, or from holding an elective office or a government job. But what it does mean is that religious beliefs and dogmas must never be the basis of law and government policy. The law must be based on reason, not someone’s religious views, otherwise the law becomes a conduit for imposing religion by government fiat.
A good example is the current controversy over gay marriage. Rationally, it could be observed that same-sex couples are capable of forming the same kinds of romantic, sexual, financial, familial, and other bonds as opposite-sex couples. Constitutionally, it’s clear that same-sex couples are entitled to the same legal recognition of their marital bonds as opposite-sex couples, based on equal protection of the law. Philosophically, the principle of inalienable individual rights demands it. In reason, there is no justification for continuing the legal ban on gay marriage.
Opponents of the legalization of gay marriage have no rational, constitutional, or philosophical ground to stand on. This is why they fall back on religious—in particular Christian—concepts of marriage to maintain the ban. They attempt to bring religion into government in order to impose their religious views by law.
You cannot keep government out of religion unless you keep religion out of government.

Many religious conservatives use Prykanowski's terminology to obfuscate Jefferson's doctrine in order to advance their agenda politically. For more discussion on this subject, I recommend Ari Armstrong's   Santorum “Throws Up” on Separation of Church and State.


Mike Kevitt said...

If you don't keep religion out of gvt. then gvt. IS religion and vica-versa. And gvt. must stay out of all pvt. activity whether religious, economic, recreational, etc., except when a person, persons and other entities initiate force. All pvt. activity, persons and other entities must stay out of gvt., too, except to ensure, by constitutional and legal means, that gvt. performs its proper, and only its proper, function.

Doug Indeap said...

The primary purpose of the First Amendment religion clauses is not to protect churches or government, but rather to protect individuals' religious freedom. The free-exercise clause does this directly by constraining the government from prohibiting individuals from freely exercising their religions. The establishment clause does this indirectly by constraining government from promoting or otherwise taking steps to establish any religion, thus assuring that individuals are free to exercise their religions without fearing the government will favor the religions of others and thus disfavor theirs.

Some who nonetheless would like to use government to promote their religion have argued that the First Amendment works only in one direction--to protect churches from government, but not the other way around. This, they suppose, would leave them (and churches) free to insinuate their religion into government and thereby effectively establish it as the nation's religion. To the extent that the First Amendment prevents that, it can be said to protect government from churches. Indeed, the notion of a one directional wall is self-contradictory: If any church is free to so influence and control government and thereby achieve a favored or established status, all individuals are at risk of their religions falling into disfavor with government and facing discriminatory treatment. One of the primary aims of the First Amendment is to prevent just that.

It is important to distinguish between the "public square" and "government" and between "individual" and "government" speech about religion. The constitutional principle of separation of church and state does not purge religion from the public square--far from it. Indeed, the First Amendment's "free exercise" clause assures that each individual is free to exercise and express his or her religious views--publicly as well as privately. The Amendment constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion. As government can only act through the individuals comprising its ranks, when those individuals are performing their official duties (e.g., public school teachers instructing students in class), they effectively are the government and thus should conduct themselves in accordance with the First Amendment's constraints on government. When acting in their individual capacities, they are free to exercise their religions as they please. If their right to free exercise of religion extended even to their discharge of their official responsibilities, however, the First Amendment constraints on government establishment of religion would be eviscerated. While figuring out whether someone is speaking for the government in any particular circumstance may sometimes be difficult, making the distinction is critical.

Nor does the constitutional separation of church and state prevent citizens from making decisions based on principles derived from their religions. Moreover, the religious beliefs of government officials naturally may inform their decisions on policies. The principle, in this context, 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 has 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.

Mike LaFerrara said...

Mike and Doug,

Thanks for your thoughtful elaboration on this very important issue.