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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Separation Of Church And State–Why Is Everybody So Afraid Of Religion?

The principle of the separation of church and state is enshrined in the Constitution; but the Founding Fathers had no intention whatsoever to ban it from public discourse, education, or civic life.  The world of late 18th century America was a very religious one.  God was no abstract deity removed from human affairs but one very much present, influential, and revered.  The philosophers of the Enlightenment, a period celebrating rationality, reason, and logic, were profoundly religious.  Reason and rational inquiry was as important to understanding the divine as they were in the days of the Early Church.  Tertullian, Clement, Origen, and Athanasius accepted Christ’s divinity a priori but were unsure of its nature.  Was Christ all God, all Man, Man and God, or something even more mysterious and complex.  They never gave way to emotionalism or blind faith and knew that in order to defend Christianity from those heretics and apostates which threatened it in the first centuries after Christ’s death, they had to mount an unassailable argument.  Aquinas centuries later was no different – a faithful believer in God and an apologist for the still-new and maturing religion – but felt it necessary to use intellectual discipline, logic, and rational exegesis to prove the existence of God.

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The Christian Church, therefore, was an institution built on a  complex theology.  It was no simple matter for early Christian thinkers in Syria, Alexandria, and Palestine to construct a religion which was built on a sound intellectual basis, told in a meaningful vernacular, within a moral and ethical framework.

The Catholic Church over the centuries has maintained this multifaceted expression of faith.  It has never been enough to pray to The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost but to understand the nature and complexity of the Trinity, the duality of the God-Man Christ, and the profound meaning of suffering, salvation and redemption.  Of course millions of Christians during the Church’s early years and many more later accept the wisdom, tradition, and theology of the Church as a matter of course and simple faith.  “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost” is repeated routinely and reflexively – a denomination of faith rather than a credentialed understanding of it.

Luther’s Reformation began the process of untying faith from reason.  By dismissing the institution of the Catholic Church, its exploitive manipulation of the faithful, and its greed and establishing an unmediated line between Man and God via Jesus Christ, Luther marginalized logic and rationality.  Pope John Paul II was the most outspoken critic of Protestant fundamentalism and the proliferation of religious sects which were completely untethered from the principles of Aquinas, Augustine, and the Early Church Fathers.   The current pope, Francis, has reiterated John Paul’s convictions, restated the importance of an intellectual foundation of faith, and reemphasized the complexity of spiritual belief.

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Whether in  the Catholic Church before Luther, the Protestant Church before evangelism, or the modern store front church, religion has never been more present, universal, and pervasive in America than it is now.  Whether Jesuit or apocalyptic, churches are the principal institutions of American social and civic life.  People look to their churches for inspiration, community, and support.

At the same time there has always been a strong anti-clerical if not anti-religious sentiment in America from those who are suspicious of doctrinal rather than democratic rule.  Religion, according to these predominantly East Coast, progressive denominations, is something to be suspicious of rather than fully endorsed.  According to them Biblical fundamentalism is the principle threat to secular democratic progressivism.  In a secular state religion has no principal or primary role.  It is a matter of personal faith only and has little to do with inspiring civic action.  The current movement to expunge any and all religious symbols and references from public institutions and places is indicative.  There is no room for religious thought in a civic environment.

The Constitution of course makes no reference to the insidiousness of religion in the public sphere; only that no one religion should be endorsed or promoted.  The world of the Founding Fathers was one in which religion existed in every public sphere.  Faith was a matter of personal conviction but essential to the body politic. Christianity’s moral code and ethical principles enunciated in the Ten Commandments and in Jesus’ teachings were essential elements of civil society.  A democracy without a principled and profound religious foundation would quickly veer, founder, and be lost.

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Jefferson and his colleagues understood that the foundations of Christianity and the foundations of the new republic were no different.  Both were based on reason, rationality, and obedient, respectful faith.  The Bible and the Constitution are not so far removed from each other.  Understanding and appreciation both requires intellectual discipline, a historical perspective, and a respect for a higher order.  Whether it be Platonic dualism or Christian Trinitarianism there were universal, ideal principles which had to orient and guide human activity. 

Religious teaching in schools in late 18th and early 19th century America was not only common, it was felt necessary and essential.  Christian morality and ethics were understood to be the foundation for right democratic action.  There was no question of an arbitrary and meaningless separation of church and state.  Christianity was the universal religion and it provided uncontested principles of behavior.

Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov suggested that not only should there be no separation of church and state; and moreover that the state should be subsumed within the church not the other way around.  What better way, said Ivan Karamazov, to assure a secure and stable society? Civil law and punishment were nothing compared to religious guilt and morality.

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Times have changed and America is a diverse, multicultural society of many faiths.  Since no school or public institution can reflect such religious diversity in its curriculum, and since educators are concerned about being labeled as evangelists for one religion, religion has been removed from education.

Why, one asks?  All religions have a belief in a divinity if not one God.  All religions have versions of the Ten Commandments.  All religions acknowledge the supremacy of the Divine, however understood; and all religions share a common belief in the essential, indispensable role of religion in their lives.

If this is the case, then Christianity – overwhelmingly the predominant religion in America – can certainly represent all others.  Right behavior is and has always been derived from religious principles which have provided the moral context of all action. The moral code of Ancient Rome, a society which based morality on philosophy and secular principles were no different than those religious ones to follow.  The lessons of Cato the Elder, a moral philosopher and educator in Ancient Rome, charged with the responsibility of Rome’s future leaders, taught standards which were were no different than those precepts of the Christian Church  to follow.

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For years American development workers in Africa refused to couch HIV/AIDS messages within a moral and religious context.  To do so would somehow defile the secularism of the health message and would impose a very Christian theology on Muslims and animists.  However, promiscuous behavior in an HIV-saturated environment was immoral and profoundly against any and all religious principles.  It was tantamount to reckless endangerment if not conspiracy in murder.  Yet few messages had the harsh and unequivocal messages of right behavior; and precious time and opportunity was lost.

A more complete inclusion of religion in public life, especially education, will allow a more complete presentation and understanding of history.  Religion has played a principle role in the development of all civilizations – Greece, Rome, Persia, India, China, and Europe. One cannot understand either Western or Eastern civilization without discussing religion, its primacy, and its influence on secular affairs.  It is not enough, however, to present a chronicle of religion – the political authority and influence of Popes and patriarchs. Only by understanding the profound nature of religious belief, and the religious worldview within which political affairs were conducted can one appreciate the Crusades, the expansion of Islam, or the power of shoguns and mandarins.  A purely academic and historical look at art, without exploring the profound religious sentiments behind it, ignores its fundamental purpose.  A teaching of art from only a secular, academic, and historical perspective ignores the spiritual and religious inspiration which gave the painting and sculpture of the Renaissance its particular power.  It becomes secondary, isolated, and only a subject of interest.

Christianity is the majority religion in America; and since its principles and beliefs are no different from other religions, using it to teach universal religious principles need not be threatening or intimidating.  Unless Christianity is promoted or evangelized, reference to its spiritual and secular history is important and necessary if not critical.

A crèche on public grounds should not offend non-Christians, for it is an expression of faith, different in character but no different in principle from other religions.  It is not meant to change or convince others, only to celebrate the importance of religious faith as an essential part of civil society.  Sectarian symbolism should be regarded as spiritual symbolism and accepted as such, not reviled.    

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The principle of the separation of church and state espoused by the Founding Fathers has been distorted beyond recognition in today’s America.  There is no need for such draconian separation; and by so divorcing religion from democracy, the commonwealth suffers. Why are we so afraid of religion?  We are more than capable of sorting through religious messages, parsing for first principles, understanding their purpose and intent, and respecting religion as a whole.  We are also quite capable of distinguishing between the spiritual and political nature of religion.  There is no reason to marginalize religion because of its political excesses.

Religion belongs in the schools and in civil discourse, if not for its moral principles and spiritual meaning, then for its historical lessons.

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