I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about the notion of the separation of Church and State, and the related issue of separation of belief and life. It is clear to me that “separation of church and state” doesn’t mean the same thing to us today as it did in 1776.
Aside: The “Founding Fathers” were not infallible, and recognized this themselves by making provisions for altering the constitution. However, we must respect the traditions of our nation because they come out of a long history of making wise decisions, while these days our decisions seem to be very crisis-driven and without a great deal of thought.
Separation of Church and State refers to the principle that the state should not tinker in the affairs of religion, nor should there be a state religion. What is perverted is the notion that our political opinions, and, indeed, our daily actions, should be without influence from our beliefs and convictions. That’s just wrong. If your system of beliefs, or your religion, does not influence your daily life, then it is a complete sham. Separation of Church and State does *NOT* mean that one is obliged to check one’s morals at the door when entering the voting booth or the Senate floor.
And, if you pay attention, you’ll notice that those folks who claim that this is the meaning of the term are the folks that are trying to keep a particular religious principle out of policy. In other words, they themselves are bringing their principles to the debate, but are denying their opposition the right to do the same.
When we elected John Kennedy, there was national debate about whether he could, or should, honor his Catholic convictions when he made policy. He stated that he must follow his principles, but would not violate the laws of the land. (Whether he did either is a matter of history and opinion. Let’s not go there.) We elect officials, for the most part, because we think that they stand for certain principles. And those of us whose principles are informed by one holy book or another tend to think that the principles learned from those books are at least as important as those learned from Thomas Jefferson and the Holy Stock Market.
So it seems to me that those who preach a freedom from religion are really missing something fundamental about the nature of our nation. We formed as a nation because we believed some things that our rulers did not believe. The religion of Voltaire (that stuff about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) is a fundamental creed of our nation. We surely don’t leave that behind when we enter the floor of the Congress. Also, our belief that we should not covet the goods of our neighbor, nor steal his cows, nor kill him, should be part of that political process.
What the government should *NOT* do, clearly, is mandate particularly religious beliefs on its citizens. This is, then, a very fine balance, and one that necessarily creates division, as people on one side or the other of a particular belief are bound to claim that their opponent is crossing the line.
In particular, there’s the folks that feel strongly about a particular issue, and try to get government to impose that belief upon the general populace. In many cases, that becomes a crossing of the right and proper separation of Church and State. However, this comes to rest rather heavily upon one’s definition of Church. Folks of the Church of PETA, for example, or perhaps the Church of the NRA, feel perfectly sanguine in trying to impose their beliefs of the general populace via the vehicle of government. But, since the term Church seems to have a very narrow definition, those folks are freed from such restrictions.
Again, perhaps I ramble, so I’ll try to restate what was, to me, the most important point. If you have a belief – whether that be in the teachings of Jesus Christ, or that monkeys should be treated with dignity – and that belief has no impact on how you life day to day, and on how you make your decisions, then that belief is a sham, and you are masquerading, yet fooling nobody but yourself. And perhaps the other folks like you who want to be fooled so that they can continue to fool themselves.