Some time ago, I wrote a post which I intended to be the first in a series on the separation of Church and State, “Separation of Church and State: A Founding Principle.” I had intended to shortly continue the series, but events required me to scale back my blogging time and postpone the sequel. Today seems a perfect day to resume the series.
Religious conservatives contemporary to Jefferson and Madison assaulted the newborn Constitution as Godless, and persistently accused the two politicians of being atheists throughout their careers. To these religious conservatives a “wall of separation” between the Church and State was nothing less than a scheme to undermine religion. They could hardly have been more wrong. While not conventionally religious, the letters and works of the two men reveal them to be profoundly spiritual people. Like modern religious conservatives who level similar charges against entities such as the ACLU, People for the American Way, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, those religious conservatives manifested a remarkable inability to grasp the difference between advocating liberty in religious matters and attempting to extinguish religion. And like their modern counterparts, they failed to understand that strict separation between state and religion is actually essential for keeping the flames of religion burning.
Within the text of Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, these thinkers were very insistent upon that point. They would have been rather skeptical of Mitt Romney’s claim that “Freedom requires religion.” They were well aware that for hundreds of years people have been imprisoned, tortured, and slaughtered in the name of religion. Religion has been a force in shackling men at least as often as liberating them, particularly when associated with the state. Under those conditions, it seeks to use the force of government to cement its temporal power, stifling new ideas while neglecting the persuasion which is the root of any effectual religion. At the same time, government when united with religion seeks to appropriate the moral authority of its partner, manipulating the modes of religion to promote its own agenda, as we experienced with the Bush administration in their Office of Faith-Based Initiatives.
Hardly trying to purge God from the nation, these founding fathers (and their modern separationist counterparts) were trying to create an environment in which religion could flourish. A level playing field allows any moral sentiment the opportunity to make its case, to rise or fall on its own merits. They sought a society in which organizations would be forced to rely on exhortation rather than coercion to promote and defend their beliefs; in which dogma could be challenged and, if found lacking, cast aside. They hoped for a society in which new ideas and new systems of belief—such as the LDS faith—could be explored and, if they drew people through their fruit, take root and blossom. When government either tries to play a role in favoring religious beliefs and practices, or neglects its duty to protect the freedom of conscience which is the root of religious freedom, government hinders that process. Religion as a result becomes superficial and hollow, a matter of compulsion rather than faith. A purely secular, areligious government, one entirely indifferent to religion, best enables religion to achieve its full spiritual potency.
Of all people we in the LDS faith should understand the importance of freedom of conscience. We are taught that the Lord raised up this nation as a land of liberty in order to restore his Gospel where it might not be smothered by the oppression of contemporary religious orthodoxy. The Church suffered great hardship and persecution because the freedom of conscience which Jefferson and Madison favored was so imperfectly protected.
This principle is part of the Church canon, in the Eleventh Article of Faith
We claim the privilege of worshiping Almight God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.
We believe that religion is instituted of God; and that men are amenable to him, and to him only, for the exercise of it, unless their religious opinions prompt them to infringe upon the rights and liberties of others; but we do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion; that the civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul.
We believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside, while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments; and that sedition and rebellion are unbecoming every citizen thus protected, and should be punished accordingly; and that all governments have a right to enact such laws as in their own judgments are best calculated to secure the public interest; at the same time, however, holding sacred the freedom of conscience…
…We do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government, whereby one religious society is fostered and another proscribed in its spiritual privileges, and the individual rights of its members, as citizens, denied.
We believe that all religious societies have a right to deal with their members for disorderly conduct, according to the rules and regulations of such societies; provided that such dealings be for fellowship and good standing; but we do not believe that any religious society has authority to try men on the right of property or life, to take from them this world’s goods, or to put them in jeopardy of either life or limb, or to inflict any physical punishment upon them. They can only excommunicate them from their society, and withdraw from them their fellowship (emphasis added).
In seeking to instill in government a systematic predisposition towards religion, religious conservatives typically point to the such patriots as George Washington, who spoke emphatically of the importance of religion for the nation in such works as his farewell address. These conservatives balk at the idea of a secular state, protesting that such a state betrays Washington’s vision by favoring atheism. They are wrong. A firm separation of Church and State does not encourage or aid atheism over any other belief. It merely allows atheists the same freedom to follow the dictates of their conscience as anyone else. It grants atheism the same opportunity to make its case as any theology. And Atheists should unquestionably have that right. Freedom of conscience is a lie, the lie of toleration, if it is proffered only to theistic beliefs. Do we as Christians so lack confidence in the persuasive power of the doctrines of Christ as to require atheism repressed by the government, indirectly or otherwise?
Meaningful religion needs no government sanction or support to sustain itself. In Jefferson’s notes for the debate on Virginia’s disestablishment, he outlined such an argument.
Christianity flourished three-hundred years without establishments. Soon as established, decline from purity. Betrays want of confidence in doctrines of church to suspect that reason or intrinsic excellence insufficient without secular prop (The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Julian Boyd editor, vol. 1 p.538-539).
Yes, Washington and other prominent founders expected the United States of America to be a religious nation. But that brings us to the second sense of the phrase “Religious (or Christian) Nation,” one in which the people of the nation upholds Christian virtue by free choice, as dictated by one’s conscience. Jefferson and Madison expected true religion to flourish in the U.S.—a religion which conventional Christians then and now would hardly endorse, but a religion nonetheless—by virtue of its power to touch the hearts of those who freely experiment upon its claims, and the persuasion of those who have experienced its goodness in their lives. They expected religion to be refined and improved through the process of free inquiry and exploration. A Christian (or religious) nation in the first sense of the word—in which government takes a hand in promoting religion, is directly antithetical to that desire. By increasingly seeking to intermingle the two, pursuing government favor for their own religious beliefs, religious conservatives are impeding the very goals they supposedly hope to accomplish. If they would follow Madison and Jefferson in strengthening the wall between the two, they could better ensure that this nation protected the religious and personal liberties we celebrate today.
- Separation of Church and State IV: Religious and Moral Legislation