Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Does the Constitution Separate Church and State?

Christine O'Donnel got a lot of flack the other day for saying, in a debate with Democrat Chris Coons that "there is no separation of church and state".  The audience ridiculed her, pointing to the Establishment Clause for proof.

So what does the Establishment Clause actually say?

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
Sounds straightforward doesn't it and, I believe, an open-minded person would have little trouble understanding what the framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were getting at.  For quite some time an organized group of Christians has been referring to the principle outlined in this section of the first amendment as the principle of "separation of church and state".  This group refers to a Thomas Jefferson letter to a group of pastors which describes the Establishment Clause as a wall separating church and state.

These days, however, it's not the usual Christian groups calling for recognition of separation of church and state, but progressive socialists who use this same phrase to support recent efforts by the government under the guise of enforcing separation of church and state to establish "freedom FROM religion" in the public square, rather than "freedom OF religion". 

Okay I get why conservatives are saying the Establishment Clause doesn't call for separation of church and state.  However, as a member of a Christian church whose free exercise has been repeatedly trampled upon by government in the past 150 years, it makes me nervous to hear you say there is no "separation".  When political lobbyists from Christian churches in the past talked about separation of church and state with reference to the Establishment Clause, we meant that the government should be separate and not controlled by any religious denomination or vice versa.  In that respect there is and should be a wall of separation. But the wall we refer to, only prevents interference by government with religion or religion with government.  It does not mean we cannot vote by our religious principles if we are elected officials.  It does not mean we cannot pray in public places or acknowledge religion's role at the very bones of our country.  It doesn't mean taking "God" out of things.  It only means we will not have priests and clerics running our government nor our government running our churches.

Once again the wisdom of our fathers is aimed squarely at those who lust for power and would imperil our liberties by seizing more of it than they are very wisely limited to by the constitution.

I just as vehemently object when progressives apply apply the establishment clause in a way that forbids any kind of religious practice in the public square.  This essentially establishes a kind of formal atheism, in effect, as our state religion.  It violates the establishment clause as surely as it would if the president started taking orders from Joel Osteen or Pat Robertson (or Mullah Omar for that matter). 

It is as wrong for the President to issue mandatory sermon topics to pastors as it would be for bishops to dictate US foreign policy.  I belong to a church whose members have been imprisoned for laboring six days a week because "laws" declared it was the wrong six days (remember the Blue Laws).  When a sheriff can drag a simple American farmer out of his field and jail him for months because powerful church leaders forced passage of a religious law, there is something not right. Clearly this was a violation of the establishment clause. These laws were resisted and after more than 70 years on the books these laws were repealed.  Still, every few years for decades since, some well-meaning someone trots out a proposed bill to formalize in law, what they believe is the correct day of worship. Such laws would enlist  government aid in enforcement of a tenant of religious belief that has no basis in natural law.

Personally, I think if Blue Laws ever do come back, they are more likely to come from the left than the right, but then not everyone agrees.  If conservatives are the party of liberty, then let's just make it clear what we mean when we make statements like the one O'Donnell made.  She badly needed to explain.  Such blanket statements as "There is no separation of church and state," make me nervous. The speakers sound like folks determined to re-establish the old theocracies that we fought so hard to free ourselves from.  I know that 99% of conservatives are not out to codify religious belief in the law of the land. Most of us have learned our lesson about what ills that can cause.

Glenn Beck is always telling us to look at history.  Well, when you do, you'll discover that 'social gospel' progressives were the ones that rammed through some of the more draconian of the Blue laws at the turn of the last century.  For the "good of the workers", people actually went to jail for plowing fields on Sunday, even though they had been in church the day before.  The folks who coined the phrase "separation of church and state" were the ones who ended such laws.  They are devout Christians and most are very conservative.

Let me be clear. I don't think conservatives are the greatest threat to establish a state religion.  I think conservatives do need to make it excruciatingly clear what they mean when they say there is no "separation" of church and state. Let's try not to sound like we're fixing to bring back the Inquisition and witch trials.  Unfortunately, some of our less thoughtful brethren aren't so careful with how they present their views on church and state issues.

Even church leaders like the Pope have called for codifying church doctrine in law.  A papal letter a few years back called for good Catholics to force passage of laws to protect Sunday as the day of worship in their own countries.  I read the pastoral letter when it came out. That would be problematic in the U.S. because of the Establishment Clause. 

There's where the wall should be built. We need that wall to tell church leaders where lie the limits of their authority.  We need that wall to also tell the government where they have no right to diddle with the free exercise of our religion.

The test of our belief in the establishment clause will come when a Christian judge posts a copy of the ten commandments on his wall and next door a Muslim judge posts a passage from the Koran on his and the Buddhist next door to him sets a little golden Buddah on his desk.  Will we protect each man's "free exercise" of his religion and trust him to make rulings according to the law alone and not to his personal belief?   I would hope so.

As a judge, I'm sure I would find it difficult to rule in favor of someone who is right under the law and yet wrong by all that's holy.  Judges do it every day, though - because of the wall that separates faith from mere human law. That wall protects those on both sides of it.  One day, this world will end and no such wall will be needed.  Till then, thank God for the Establishment Clause.

Just one man's opinion,

Tom King - Tyler, TX

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