Sunday, September 16, 2012

Separation of Church And State

          I am an agnostic.  My family is Mormon.  My husband is a Hindu who came to the U.S. for grad school.  Within this spectrum of religious and cultural identities is the beauty and promise of the American dream; we are a nation of diversity and opportunity.  We are a pluralistic society, one in which every individual’s religious and cultural identity should be respected.  The strength of the United States is in the promise of tolerance for the entire spectrum of humanity. 
          Every-time I hear the intersection of politics and religion – the insertion of “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, the constant refrain of “God Bless America” by politicians on both sides of the aisle, the words of “In God We Trust” printed on our national currency – I find myself wondering where the American ideal went astray.  Our nation was founded on the idea of a separation between church and state.  The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”   
          Separation of church and state is not meant to tear down the institution of religion; rather separation of church and state is meant to foster an environment in which individuals feel comfortable worshipping according to the dictates of their own conscience.  The refrain of “under God” or “God bless America” assumes many things, the least of which is a belief in a singular God.  This may feel like a small matter – the removal of a few words that may or may not offend most people.  But if these words are to be repeated in a public environment, with the attendant pressure to follow along, then we need to respect the idea that religion is a deeply personal and private matter.  Religion does not belong in either the government or government-funded institutions. 
          John F. Kennedy, in his 1960 address on religion, stated,

"I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him."

          With this election cycle heating up, the controversy surrounding candidates and their religion is only getting worse.  God – and prayer – has been mentioned by both Democrats and Republicans alike.  I don’t feel comfortable with the intersection of religion and politics; this is not the country we were meant to be.  We are a far cry from the ideals upon which our nation was founded.  If we are to truly become a nation where all people may worship according to the dictates of their own conscience, then we need to remove religious ideologies from the confines of government.   
          In the words of John F Kennedy: “Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.”


  1. I couldn't agree more. I'm concerned about this as well. It seems as if we're on a slippery slope as a country. Great post!

  2. It's very weird to me that unquestioning belief in an invisible Dude no one has met -- one whose precise identity all can't agree on, who imposed barbaric laws and committed mass genocide in the OT, and who continues to believe in crap completely unsupported by science -- is considered by (reportedly) 80-ish% of Americans to be the most important qualification for the POTUS. Bizarre.

  3. Amen and amen. Great post!

  4. I don't think that religion belongs as a litmus test for any politician. The discussion of religion as such a large part of the political discourse most definitely concerns me, mostly because it deemphasizes many much more important issues.

    I do not think that a separation between church and state requires the idea of God to be taken out of all official government symbols or documents. There is a huge difference between religious rule, and the inclusion of religion in a society. Since a large portion of the country, when it was founded and now, believe in some form of a power that is stronger, more intelligent or in some way beyond humans (mono or polytheistic) it is hard to say that the Constitution or our current government should have no influence on each other. When blanket statements like that are made, most often people who have a belief in God, simply disengage in the discussion.

    I think there is plenty of room to talk about individual practices, and making sure that those who do not believe in God are protected from laws that intrude into their lives. When I was in grade school, a state law was passed giving children and teachers the option not to say the pledge of allegiance, or to say only part of it, without any penalty. Some kids said it, others didn't. By the time my son entered grade school, the only time it was repeated was in school assemblies, with about a quarter of the students choosing to sit instead of joining in.

    I am not sure I understand the objection to "In God We Trust," being included on money. It is certainly not new, and nothing that I know of that requires it to be included. If there are enough people who want it changed, it would not be any harder to have Congress take it off the money, than it would be to change any other federal law.

    As long as the majority of the country supports having the phrase on the money, I am not sure there is a reason to remove it. I am not sure what the damage, an atheist living in a country that is not primarily atheistic, has from money or art that holds theistic elements. Is there an infringement on civil liberties that I have missed?

    I am wondering how you would envision the separation between church and state, in a democracy which includes religious individuals? Would you expect the religious beliefs of voters not to influence the choices they make in voting? The Constitution provides for courts to ensure that the rights of individuals, against laws that would infringe on Constitutionally guaranteed rights. There is a huge difference between a state religion and religious phrases. One forces religion on a person to enjoy all of the rights of citizenship. The other is an echo of the beliefs, in public forums.

    I am worried about the increasing role of religion in politics. Personally, I see a move from people voting in their own best financial interest (working class voters voting for policies or politicians who have a record of helping working class people) and instead are voting based on religious affiliation and continually their financial best interests.

    1. My issue is mainly with government-sponsored mentions of religion. There will always be room for religious practices and imagery, in many different aspects - art, church, literature, etc. I don't think there should be any restrictions on worship or expressing religious ideas. But I do think these expressions of religious beliefs should not be inserted into laws or anything funded/endorsed by the government, as that would edge into the territory of Congress making laws that respect a particular religion.

      When you see nation-wide mentions of a deity on a government issued currency or a pledge of allegiance, that does send a message that the government is endorsing religion. And it should be noted that the insertion of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance and the phrase "In God We Trust" on currency is a practice that was instituted back in the 50's; it was not a practice instituted by the authors of our Constitution.


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