In order to preserve the freedom of conscience I’ve discussed in my previous posts, we must more rigorously maintain a firm wall of separation between Church and State. I believe the logical first step would be to remove religious invocations from government language, property, and practice. For instance:
The Pledge of Allegiance. I’m skeptical that the Pledge of Allegiance serves any meaningful purpose. Given its statist nature and socialist origin, I am perpetually perplexed that so many conservatives make such a fetish of it. But if the Pledge is to continue to be a significant part of our civic tradition, the reference to God (which is not an original part of the Pledge, but a 1954 insertion as part of the Cold War ideological battle against the explicitly-atheist communist world) should be eliminated. The government has no role making any declaration about whom its citizens may or may not believe their nation is under.
Government Oaths. Government has no place declaring in whose name government oaths should be sworn. Whether oaths of office or in court, those swearing people in should not include “so help you/me God” in the recitation. Individuals swearing those oaths are certainly well within their rights of expression to add personal invocations to the higher power of their choice, should they so chose. But making that invocation part of the administration of the oath is an inappropriate institutionalization of religious belief on the part of the state.
Civic Prayer. Government sponsored events, from Presidential inaugurations and Congressional sessions down to city council meetings and public school activities, should not involve prayer as part of the event. Participants who believe in a higher power have every right—indeed, a duty— to implore that power for wisdom and guidance prior to such events, and in their hearts during the proceedings. But government itself should not be establishing a given standard for belief through prayer as part of government events.
The Ten Commandments. Ten Commandments monuments should likewise be removed from any public property. Private individuals or organizations should have the right to erect religious inscriptions such as the Ten Commandments on their own private property. But government should not be giving endorsement or favor to any particular religious beliefs, and so neither religious inscriptions nor religious codes have any place in courthouses, schools, or (despite the recent Supreme Court ruling allowing government to show religious preference) public parks.
Motto and Currency. Government shouldn’t be making decrees regarding what divinities we may or may not trust. Religious inscriptions have only been used on U.S. money for the last century and a half, and then only intermittently. The idea that we should invoke God on our money, a medium regarding which Christ showed little concern, seems a bit bizarre to me; I find it ironic at best, and profane at worst. The official government motto was only adopted about the same time as the inclusion of God in the Pledge, and for the same reasons; I see no reason that the original de facto motto “E Pluribus Unum,” wouldn’t serve better and more closely represent the attitude of the founders in establishing the nation.
Education. Government operated education should not be concerned with promoting any religious tradition, whether a given tradition is the majority or not. It should not involve prayers, or scripture study for religious education, or the promotion of religious doctrine under the guise of “intelligent design.”
A ban on religious invocation would not mean that there can be nothing related to religion in the government sphere. There is a distinction between religious invocation and religious cultural references. For example, in the Department of Justice building there is a statue representing Lady Justice, a Greco-Roman personification of justice. No one would suggest this is state support of Classical polytheism or a literal invocation to a goddess of justice. The sculpture is a cultural reference to a period of history which strongly resonates with our own. Such cultural references are perfectly within the scope of secular institutions: Moses and Solomon are included in a frieze in the South Courtroom of the Supreme Court, along with Hammurabi, Solon, Confucius, Augustus, Muhammad, Charlemagne, and others representing historical “lawgivers.” The library of the university I attended had inscribed above the foyer “With all thy getting, get understanding.” While this is a biblical passage, it is not an invocation of God, but rather a literary reference relevant to the purpose of a library. A number of cities in Massachusetts and in Utah have statues of historical religious leaders because those particular religious leaders played important roles in the history of those states. The Ten Commandments, on the other hand, have no practical relevance to U.S. history, government, or law (the Ten Commandments are hardly the foundation for U.S. law, as some Christian conservatives like to contend; the nation’s jurisprudence owes far more to the Anglo-Saxon folkmoots, Roman legal codification, and the law code of Hammurabi). Their only purpose on public property is to grant a special reverence to one particular religious tradition.
There will, of course, be those who misinterpret the absence of God from government platform as a repudiation of God. This critique is myopic. The absence of positive affirmations of God in our oaths or pledges or currency or buildings would hardly be a denial of the existence of God or a repudiation of religion. It would simply reflect the truth that it is up to us as free individuals to make our own determination about the nature of the divine and to promote those beliefs on their own merits rather than through government support. It would recognize that religion can be a powerful force for good for individuals and society only when religion is spread through personal conviction and not government prescription.
In some ways one might think these items to be somewhat superficial and trivial. Words inscribed on our money or casually recited in a pledge have very little real-world impact on our lives. I don’t think we can discount ways in which these official government appeals and endorsements exert pressure on society to conform—that is, after all, why certain entities have pressed for such appeals and endorsements in the first place. furthermore, the government acknowledgment and sanction of religion which these invocations represent gives government tacit license to further promote, prefer, and define religion in the public sphere. Many groups would like to further intermingle Church and State; the Constitution Party is perhaps most explicit in stating that it’s goal is to “restore American jurisprudence to its Biblical foundations,” and erroneously claiming that “The U.S. Constitution established a Republic rooted in Biblical law,” but many other groups share the same sentiment and desire to infringe upon true freedom of conscience. By drawing a strong line at these seemingly minor transgressions on freedom of conscience, we make it easier to resist the more hazardous infraction: the legislative codification of religious belief and practice.
- Separation of Church and State IV: Religious and Moral Legislation