Monday, October 17, 2011

Separation of church and state

I wrote this textbox this morning:
A very controversial issue in American politics is the idea of the “separation of church and state.”  The first amendment to the Constitution says that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”  This basic right is usually referred to as “freedom of religion.”

However, there are differing interpretations of the “establishment clause” current in America today.  For some, it means that the government cannot be involved in anything religious at all.  Accordingly, those who interpret the clause in this way believe it illegal for any Christian symbols to be present in the houses of government (e.g., the Ten Commandments in a courthouse) or for prayer to be present in public schools.

The other interpretation is that the government cannot endorse any specific religion.  When interpreted this way, the key is that no one religion or religious viewpoint be taught exclusively.  Ten Commandments can be present in public forums if they represent traditions of law rather than an endorsement of Jewish or Christian religion.  Prayer can take place as long as it is generic or as long as prayer is offered from more than one faith.  Certainly if children in the schools want to pray, it would violate their freedom of religion to prohibit it, unless their prayer was proving disruptive.

Religious neutrality on the part of the government fits well with the notion of the Constitution as a social contract.  All individuals have the right to practice their own religion as long as it does not harm others.  The government thus serves as moderator rather than proponent of specific religious beliefs (while protecting certain more basic ethical principles).  This perspective was also forged in the religious persecution of Europe that drove so many to America (e.g., the Pilgrims) and that was also part of the history of American colonies such as in Puritan New England.


Robert said...

You pay lip service to the idea of the separation of church and state, but what chance would an atheist have of becoming president? From this side of the Atlantic, you look as very much like a theocracy.

Rick said...


We live in the tension of being a religious society, with one dominant faith (a professed faith), believing that one's faith does impact their actions (on some level), yet not endorsing one specific religion, in a more and more pluralistic society.

It is a healthy tension, that prevents the leaning too far in one direction or the other.