Posts Tagged ‘church state wall’

Why a National Day of Prayer?

May 5, 2010

Tomorrow is, as the first Thursday in May has been for a couple of decades, the National Day of Prayer. I’ve noticed a lot more fuss among Conservatives about the day than most years. perhaps because of misleading rumors that President Obama had canceled the observance and because a federal judge had ruled the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional, many seem to have been galvanized to promote the day more enthusiastically than usual.

Their enthusiasm puzzles me. Prayer is only meaningful if motivated by sincere belief and intent. If people of sincere, humble belief are already praying, as they presumably do, what purpose a national day of prayer? If it takes the coercion of government declaration to get them to pray, what would be the purpose? How is that not vain prayer? If it is only a suggestion or encouragement to pray, why do we need to waste government time in message legislation or declarations sanctioning certain forms of observance? Are not the various religious organizations perfectly capable of voluntarily organizing to promote a national day of prayer should they deem it necessary? Why should we call upon the government, which conservatives paint as so ineffective, and which they want out of our personal lives, to lead us in prayer? Are presidents and government proclamations so much more effective than pastors, priests, and bishops in convincing people to pray? If it is a harmless gesture, as some supporters suggest, I wonder how they would react to the similarly harmless suggestion in a National Day of No Prayer?

I’m no lawyer. I don’t know that a National Day of Prayer is strictly unconstitutional. But I do believe that it is inconsistent with the core American value of Freedom of Conscience. While some of the Founders and early presidents, including both Washington and Adams, did champion national days of prayer, others—most prominently Jefferson and Madison, among the strongest advocates of Freedom of Conscience and early Republican values—opposed the practice.

Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the time for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and right can never be safer than in their hands, where the Constitution has deposited it (Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to Rev. Samuel Miller,” The Jefferson Cyclopedia).

Altho’ recommendations only, [National Days of Prayer] imply a religious agency, making no part of the trust delegated to political rulers.

The objections to them are 1. that Govts ought not to interpose in relation to those subject to their authority but in cases where they can do it with effect. An advisory Govt is a contradiction in terms. 2. The members of a Govt as such can in no sense, be regarded as possessing an advisory trust from their Constituents in their religious capacities. They cannot form an ecclesiastical Assembly, Convocation, Council, or Synod, and as such issue decrees or injunctions addressed to the faith or the Consciences of the people. In their individual capacities, as distinct from their official station, they might unite in recommendations of any sort whatever, in the same manner as any other individuals might do. But then their recommendations ought to express the true character from which they emanate. 3. They seem to imply and certainly nourish the erronious idea of a national religion. (James Madison, detached memoranda, c. 1817).

Such observances overtly grant government favor to religion and theism over other alternatives. Further, despite some lip service to diversity, the day is, by the National Day of Prayer Task Force’s own admission, inherently sectarian in nature (the purpose includes “Foster unity within the Christian Church,” and “Publicize and preserve America’s Christian heritage,” and otherwise uses language which is specifically Judeo-Christian in nature).

Certainly those who believe in God should pray tomorrow, as on any other day. But we shouldn’t use government to promote our beliefs or to give preference to our religious tradition over others if we truly want the nation to stand for freedom of religion.

Separation of Church and State III: Making a State Incognizant of Religion

September 10, 2009

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.

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Separation of Church and State II: Necessary for the Protection of Both

July 4, 2009

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.

D&C 134:4-5 & 9-10 makes the Gospel’s position even more clear on the subject.

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.

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Separation of Church and State: A Founding Principle

October 31, 2008

Is the U.S. a Christian nation? On the campaign, John McCain asserted that it is. Barack Obama has insisted we are not. But what does the phrase mean?

There are two concepts to which the phrase “Christian nation” can be applied. The first concept is one in which the government itself directly upholds the cause of Christianity. Many Christian groups, most associated with conservatism, have endorsed that interpretation. For example, the Family Research Council has claimed that “Our founders expected that Christianity—and no other religion—would receive support from the government as long as that support did not violate peoples’ consciences and their right to worship.” Dozens of conservative books and websites proclaim that the concept of a wall of separation between Church and State is a myth. Many conservative Christian leaders and organizations, based on that premise, have actively promoted a greater integration of Church and State, seeking to use government power to advance their agendas. Even such supposedly libertarian conservatives as Ron Paul have argued against the separation and in favor of a Christian connection to our government.

Like the FRC, Paul and others who subscribe to that first concept of a Christian nation invoke the Founding Fathers. According to these religious conservatives, these Founding Fathers, fellow pious Christians, wanted this nation to be explicitly Christian in character, and would be shocked at the secularization of the government.

While there are some few nuggets of truth in their claims, one must pan out a whole lot of silt to find them. The colonies were indeed largely established as explicitly religious communities—most of them one particular denomination (Pennsylvania being the exception). Deviation from that denomination’s religion was legally restricted, as Jews, Catholics, Quakers, Baptists, and other minority faiths sadly discovered. Many in the U.S. are inaccurately taught in school that the original European immigrants came seeking religious freedom. In truth, these immigrants typically came to establish their own religious dominions. The pilgrims were so fanatical in their religious oppression, The crown in England sent a letter to Massachusetts demanding that local authorities stop executing his subjects for heresy.

The founding of the United States of America was altogether different. Before I explain, I should point out a historical misconception. In political debate, we frequently try to present the Founding Fathers as some harmonious body. But these generalizations are far from accurate. The founding generation was as factious and fractious a bunch as any. The debates were intense, their relationships frequently bitter. Those who present a particular political point of view as that of “The Founders” are incorrectly ascribing some unanimity to this diverse bunch.

Some of the founding generation were certainly conventional and deeply devout Christians who wanted the nation to be expressly and innately Christian. Like Mike Huckabee, those men wanted to mold the nation’s governing charter to “God’s standard.” Many of these men were outraged when—and here is a key point—the Constitution did not once address God. Virtually all prior government codes and charters in the Western tradition had very unequivocally prevailed upon and recognized God. Yet in the final bargain the Constitution conspicuously declined any such invocation. There is nothing within the founding document which supports the conservative claims.

Christian conservatives like to take selected words of the critical founders out of context to give the impression that they share with today’s Christians a similar faith. Given the way founders are described in LDS circles, one might even believe them some sort of pre-Restoration LDS quorum. But research on the wider scope of their lives reveals that none of the men most prominent in the founding of the U.S. can accurately be associated with conventional Christianity. Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison all scoffed at the idea of the divinity of Christ and other core theological principles of Christianity. Each was highly skeptical of the organizations which had risen up around those beliefs. Institutionalized religion was frequently a target of Franklin’s wit. Jefferson believed that it was religion—the hierarchical structures and the orthodoxy they enforce—which had perverted the simple and beautiful doctrines of Jesus by building up the superstitions of his divinity. Even Adams, more tolerant of religion as a necessary evil than the other two, caustically erupted numerous times over one religion or another in his private correspondence. George Washington was much more circumspect on religion than the others. He served on the vestry of his local Episcopal congregation, as men of his status in Virginia were expected to do. He frequently made reference to a higher power in his discourse, both civic and private—the private references often in the form of thundering expletives. But he rarely chose Christian phrases for God in public, preferring instead masonic or deist epithets. While he often attended services, it is well attested that he never took communion. Rarely did he make mention of Christ, let alone discuss Jesus as his Savior, despite the persistent urging of the Christian leaders of his era. Some call the faith of these men Theistic Rationalism. Whatever we may believe about their postmortal religious beliefs and affiliations (Journal of Discourses, vol. 19, p. 229), during their earthly probation their beliefs can hardly be considered akin to the religious right—whether conventional Christian or conservative LDS.

The extent to which these men believed government should be interwoven with religion varied. Washington and Adams were agreeable to a general collaboration between Church and State. Washington felt religious institutions useful partners to government in establishing order in society, though he was indifferent to the doctrine of those institutions. Adams, despite his personal theological heterodoxy, believed Christian organizations and their doctrines should be supported by the government for their role in restraining the less savory aspects of our humanity (the cantankerous Adams derided most religion, but he was even more dubious about the prospects for humanity without it). Under these Presidents, the ones who made “so help me God” an unofficial addition to the Presidential oath of office, federally sponsored days of fasting and prayer were not uncommon, and the wall between Church and State was fairly permeable. Even so, Adams signed an official treaty which noted that “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion… (Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary, 1796, article 11).”

Things were decidedly different with the next two presidents, Jefferson and Madison. Unlike their predecessors, these two outraged the religious establishment by refusing to call for national days of fasting and prayer during their administrations, seeing such declarations as unconstitutional (see “Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Rev. Samuel Millar,” 01.23.1808). Jefferson was indeed very insistent that there be the “wall of separation” between Church and State. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, for which Jefferson had been the foremost architect, was to him such a crowning achievement that it was one of the three accomplishments he selected to list in his epitaph. As he put it

The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg (Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 17,1782).

Even more adamant about the necessity to separate Church and State, Madison’s original proposal for what became the First Amendment was stunning in its scope before being watered down in congressional compromise.

The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner or on any pretext infringed (Amendments Offered in Congress by James Madison June 8, 1789)

Madison was not content to prevent government collusion with religion on a national level. States-rights proponents who list Jefferson and Madison as unqualified advocates of states supremacy over the federal government might be surprised to read the fifth amendment Madison submitted in his draft of amendments.

No State shall violate the equal rights of conscience, or the freedom of the press, or the trial by jury in criminal cases (ibid, emphasis added)

(Those same “states rights” absolutists should also note that Madison’s original “Virginia Plan” which he presented to the Constitutional Convention maintained that the federal government needed a “negative” power—essentially a federal veto—over state legislatures; see “Letter from James Madison to Thomas Jefferson,” 24.10.1787).

During his administration, Madison opposed the common practice of government chaplains, whether for the military, state-funded universities, or Congress. If individuals or groups wished spiritual guidance, he determined that they should seek it out on their own and if necessary, with their own funds. He fought the government practice of incorporating church properties. When Christian groups petitioned to have the U.S. postal service closed on Sundays in observance of the Sabbath, Madison actively opposed their efforts. He resisted any government involvement with private charities connected with religion.

Madison’s stated belief is most stark in defense of religious freedom and a separation of Church and State.

We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society [ie, government] and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance (Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments; emphasis added).

Exempt from its cognizance. Often when describing issues touching upon the relationship between Church and State, the phrase “religious tolerance” is used. But Madison’s vision is not one of a Christian-based government practicing kindly tolerance of other faiths. He well knew “tolerance” was arbitrary and “a source itself of discord and animosity, (“Letter from Madison to Edward Everett,” 03.19.1823).” Madison proposed a government completely blind to religion, one which does not even recognize the existence of religion.

These two men most closely associated with our founding documents, these icons of the early American Republicanism which conservatives invoke, strongly favored a disassociate between Church and State. In claiming that there is no historical foundation for this separation, conservatives show a profound ignorance and lack of understanding about the founding of our nation, the men who were instrumental in that founding, and the document which governs the nation.

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