Wednesday, February 15, 2017

What the Government Really Has to Say About the Church

To put it simply, "Nothing."  The First Amendment says this.
  • Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
In other words, any law the government may make which limits the right of churches or individuals who may belong to a church to meet together, speak freely or print their opinion or even to complain to the government, is unconstitutional.

In other words.  The government may not meddle with the church and the church can do or say what it likes without interference.  This is highly troubling to many, given that the churches of the United States are given by the Constitution, great freedom and latitude to do their work, while the poor government may only stand by and wring its hands if the pastors of the nation say mean things about it.

This was a revolutionary idea in the world of the late 1700s/early 1800s given that most of the nations of the world had a government-sponsored church. The key feature of such a system was that only the approved church was encouraged and all others, if tolerated at all, were repressed. Because the state church depended on the state largess for it's continued existence, most state churches were well-behaved towards their political masters. The First Amendment was a revolutionary idea because most nations were governed by the nobility. Churches, as any king worth his salt knew, could be quite troublesome if allowed to call out the princes for their bad behavior. After all, the princes believed that because of all the hard work they did governing the ignorant masses, a little moral leeway should be allowed them. That's probably why the bit of my family tree that strays into the noble classes has so many branches that grow together at the top or were lopped off by less-deserving branches. The noble classes were naughty boys and girls.

At any rate, the churches, because of those pesky commandments, often felt compelled to speak out against the behavior of their liege lords. This problem with mouthy churchmen has a long history, going all the way back to Nero's problems with the Christians, Herod's dust up with John the Baptist, Ahab's troubles with Elijah and Saul's problems with Samuel. Churches are troublesome anyway a despot looks at it. They have a bad habit of pointing out sins. The Founding Fathers wanted to hamstring any potential American despot who might wish to silence the conscience of the nation. Religion had, after all, played a key role in the success of the American Revolution.

So the Constitution, after it's fashion, limits government's power to restrict the rights and privileges of the people.
Our founding documents tell the government what it cannot do and tells the churches their rights are protected along with the rights of other peaceful assemblies of the people. It also took the time to create a second protected moral voice by protecting the freedom of the press which also was supposed to act as a curb on power-mongering.

The First Amendment says that the government, therefore, cannot set up its own exclusive church, nor can it compel people to worship in that church. Nothing else is implied and any attempt to project any sort of government power over the exercise of faith by Americans is therefore, unconstitutional. Nowhere does it say the churches may not speak out on issues which concern it's moral imperatives or religious practices. And for 240 years, the churches have been pretty good about not using government to establish religious practice with occasional lapses, of course. A lengthy experiment with Sunday Blue Laws was finally brought to an end within my lifetime, brought on, in part, by the lobbying efforts of churches concerned that such laws did, in fact, violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Churches have recently spoken out against efforts by government to legislate the acceptance of gay marriage, in particular by churches which find the practice in violation of their principles.
Churches have also spoken out against abortion, which most find to be nothing less than murder of a human being. Because the issue of when a fetus becomes human is something of a philosophical or theological argument, the government has rightly left the decision with regard to abortion in the hands of the individual mother. Other aspects such as father's rights or the establishment of some sort of mutually agreed upon limit to how late an abortion can be performed might find some wiggle room for government legislation, but, again, this is something we as a nation can debate and churches have every right to put their oars into that debate.

Recently, laws regarding public restrooms have been challenged by churches on the grounds that such laws violate the establishment law by imposing secular standards upon the practice of faith by church members. More blatantly, laws which gag pastors from speaking out about political issues against the threat of IRS stripping them of the nonprofit status granted all religious organizations. If you're a strict constitutionalist, IRS sanctions would definitely fall under the establishment clause.

Remember, the Constitution tells the government it cannot meddle with churches. The right of churches to state their opinion or to advise their members on public issues, on the other hand, is protected by the Constitution along with the rights of individuals as well (under the right to petition for redress of grievances clause).

Secular priesthoods are never kindly or benevolent. They are a tyranny
because they have no moral compass, nor any fear of God.
My own church has long fought for the principle of separation of church and state. How? By preaching about public issues like Blue Laws and religious discrimination, by lobbying, by printing a magazine on the subject and by raising funds to support lobbying efforts to protect religious liberty. At no time have we believed that separation meant that churches should be silent. You can call it "education" all you want, but what the religious liberty, pro-separation coalition is doing really is lobbying by the old definition. We just don't call it that anymore because the IRS gets all up in your business if a nonprofit lobbies the legislature. Apparently the IRS thinks lobbying has something to do with bribing politicians (and sadly, they may be right). 

There is a concerted effort going on right now to establish a new government-sponsored religion. This religion is being established by silencing and banning all other religions from any influence it might have with government. Therefore, by denying all other religions the right to petition for redress of grievances with the government, militant secularism establishes itself as the only government-approved belief system. No matter that secularism has every earmark of a religion. It has codes of conduct, fundamental beliefs and websites. It holds evangelistic meetings, sells books, and pamphlets. It has prophets and preachers. It proclaims loudly that God is dead and therefore must have no influence upon the government which must only recognize the tenets of secularism. Most of these tenets are rules of behavior and belief as ironclad as the ten commandments. And, it seems, the secularists are making up their tenets as they go, largely in the form of cultural laws and rules which gag preachers and hobble religious institutions from doing their work of influencing the culture for what they see as "good".

For an amendment with just 45 words total, the forces of secularism have certainly managed to wring a lot of meaning out of the establishment clause that doesn't appear to be present. Dylan Thomas once wrote, "Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light." I agree with the fiery Welshman as I watch the Christian church face enemies that would have its light extinguished. I do not believe we should go gently. As another great philosopher once said, "I'm tired of runnin'. I aim to misbehave."  I even bought the tee shirt.

I'm just saying,

© 2017 by Tom King

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