I make no bones about the fact that I'm a staunch supporter of many non-religious causes, but perhaps none are as important to me as the issue of church-state separation. I believe that many Americans, especially those on the conservative side of the political spectrum, don't fully understand the issue and why it is important to stand up to any encroachment from one domain to the other. This subject has been covered in-depth by scholars, politicians and philosophers since the concept of separation was first introduced, and I don't believe that I have any new answers or special wisdom on this matter. But I have wanted to write about my own reasons for continuing to fight this battle, even when the stakes seem low, for some time now. So here we go.
First, I think it's important to look at all the possible positions that government can take with regards to religion. There seem to be four main positions: I call them Exclusive Support, Inclusive Support, Inclusive Neutral and Exclusive Neutral.
Exclusive Support is a closed theocracy. This means that the government supports a single religion, to the exclusion of all others. Non-state led religions may or may not be tolerated, but if they exist, they are not supported in any way by government money or resources.
Inclusive Support is an open theocracy. In this system, the government declares a national religion or religious position, but it also tolerates other faiths and leverages some measure of financial support to many different religions and/or denominations. This is what many conservatives believe our country is, or should be.
Inclusive Neutral is an open democracy with no specific religion, but many religious ties. In this system, the government remains neutral, in that does not have a national religion or official religious position. It is tolerant of many faiths, including those with no faith, and it makes certain concessions, including financial compensation, to various religions and denominations. This is currently where our country seems to be, and this is also what many liberals believe our country should be.
Exclusive Neutral is an open democracy with no specific religion, and no religious ties whatsoever. In this system, government remains neutral on religion, and while it tolerates religious belief and freedom of religion, it provides no assistance whatsoever to religion. It neither helps nor hinder religious worship. This position is also called "True Neutral". This is the position that is set forth in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment (there is some argument on this point, but I hope to demonstrate that there should not be), and is what some people, both believers and nonbelievers, are working very hard to re-establish.
Both conservatives and liberals seem to favor an Inclusive position, perhaps because the Inclusive position seems, at least on the surface, to be the most tolerant of many religious faiths, which this country has in abundance (the sheer number of Christian denominations alone is staggering). However, there are real problems with an Inclusive position, and I believe that long-term, this position in not sustainable.
Perhaps the best example of the failure of an Inclusive position is the Washington State holiday displays in Olympia, which have captured national and international media attention for the last few years. The major hurdle with holding an Inclusive position is that to be truly inclusive is impossible. Attempting to support the sheer number of religions and denominations that exist today, in order to not exclude any one religion, is an exercise in futility. It quickly became comical as the public space in Olympia was filled - first with legitimate religious sentiments, and then over time, with one kooky belief system after another.
The other major problem with Inclusive positions is that while they pay lip service to tolerance, what ends up happening in reality is that a certain subset of religious belief ends up taking a dominant position. In the United States, Christianity in some form ends up at the top of the heap of religious belief, because that is the professed religion of most Americans. Conservatives want to bolster that position and edge other religions out, while liberals wish to bring in more diversity, but not too much to upset the majority. So while Inclusive might seem to be open to diversity in principle, in practice there is still one religion or subset of religions that hold the lion's share of public and, subsequently, government support.
An example of this was seen very recently (and corrected) in Cranston, Rhode Island. Jessica Ahlquist, an atheist student, recently filed suit after her school refused to take down a sectarian Christian prayer banner that was hanging in the school's auditorium. Conservatives decried her lawsuit because they claimed she was attacking Christianity, in the same vein as "removing prayer from schools" (itself a falsehood - kids are free to pray in school all they want, it's staff-led prayer that was banned, as it clearly shows government support of a particular religion). Some liberals also decried her, claiming that the prayer was doing her no harm and simply a representation of an earlier time, or that the prayer banner was generic enough that she was wrong to be offended by its presence. "Where's the harm?" I kept hearing.
Thankfully, federal judges from the district level on up to the Supreme Court, are well versed on the Constitutional issues at stake, and tend to rule in favor of taking the Exclusive Neutral position - removing any and all trace of religion from our publicly funded and run buildings. They do this because they know, as did our founding fathers, that despite whatever the majority opinion is on religion, religious freedom is all about protecting the rights of the minority. Of the few. Or even the one. They know that the only way for our government to maintain neutrality on the subject of religion is to leverage no support or hold any opinion at all, until and unless there arises some need for civic or legal disputes to be resolved. Belief must be preserved, but it must be preserved as the private, personal issue that it is.
The first several words of the First Amendment read: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;" and this can only be interpreted one way: the Constitution explicitly prohibits the federal (and for all intents and purposes, the states) government from establishing an official religion, or from favoring or disfavoring one view of religion over another. It's the second part of the clause, and its interpretation, that I feel is lost on many Americans.
Almost all people are happy to accept the first part of the clause, that speaks to not establishing a state religion, most likely because it addresses the literal letter of the law. But the second part "...or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" is even more important, because it speaks to the spirit of the law - the intent of the establishment clause, which is not simply to keep religion out of government and vice-versa, but which tells us that government must have no voice on matters of religion whatsoever. The free exercise of religion by all can only be accomplished when it is done without bias, and there is only one system under which that is possible, and that is to completely remove government from the discussion via the Exclusive Neutral position.
The reason why I feel it's vitally important for more Americans to understand this issue is that it speaks to our national identity; what kind of country we were truly meant to be. Every time I hear a conservative author or TV show host talk about how liberals are trying to "secularize" this country, I cringe to think that they have only understood a small part of the brilliance of our founding document. We are a secular country by design. And we must fight to maintain it as such.
But I also cringe when I hear voices on the liberal side defending school vouchers or faith-based initiatives, in the name of inclusiveness and tolerance, because I fear that they also are ignoring or denying the beauty of our purely secular government.
And with that, I will close with the timeless and wise words of James Madison, from a letter he wrote to the Rev. Jasper Adams:
"I must admit moreover that it may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and the civil authority with such distinctness as to avoid collisions and doubts on unessential points. The tendency to a usurpation on one side or the other or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them will be best guarded against by entire abstinence of the government from interference in any way whatever, beyond the necessity of preserving public order and protecting each sect against trespasses on its legal rights by others."
I apologize for the lengthy post - this is what happens when you don't blog for a while - it builds up into a massive snowball of text. If you've read this far, thank you for taking the time to do so. Next post will be more fluff, less stuff. :-)