A thick wall of separation

By Stephen B. Young

The Daily Record Newswire

Our presidential election campaign is picking up steam; money is being raised as never before, mostly to convince voters that the other party's guy is a very poor choice to be president. Most voters have already dug in and need little convincing that their views are a kind of political light that must prevail over the opposing darkness. It's as if we have brought religious sectarianism into our politics as they have been doing in Iraq and now in Egypt.

Our federal Constitution, however, calls for separation of church and state -- no establishment of any religion by the police power of the state, and freedom of belief for all. But what we need today to restore greatness to our country is a separation of politics from every kind of religious prejudice.

Politics turns on free speech and rights of free assembly and petitioning the government so the state can't pass laws to punish us if we bring religion into politics. So we must call on individual self-restraint, on the power of civic virtue, on right understanding of constitutional democracy -- on a mature, uniquely American cultural wisdom -- to keep religions out of politics. What is legal isn't always just or wise.

Our practice of being wary about the contaminants that come with religious zeal is venerable. It is echoed in the First Amendment to the Constitution but was a formative influence before and during our Revolution.

One of the most powerful early statements for separation of politics from religion is little known -- a Dec. 27, 1657 remonstrance of inhabitants of the town of Flushing against an order of Gov. Peter Stuyvesant.

Stuyvesant had ordered that no Quakers should be received or entertained in homes because they were supposed to be seducers of the people into wrong thinking.

The 30 signers -- six of them by mark only -- said in the critical assertion of their remonstrance:

"The law of love, peace, and liberty in the states extending to Jews, Turks, and Egyptians, as they are considered sons of Adam, which is the glory of the outward state of Holland, so love, peace, and liberty, extending to all in Christ Jesus, condemns hatred, war, and bondage. And because our Savior sayeth it is impossible but that offenses will come, but woe unto him by whom they cometh, our desire is not to offend one of his little ones, in whatsoever form, name or title he appears in, whether Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist, or Quaker, but shall be glad to see anything of God in any of them, desiring to do unto all men as we desire all men should do unto us, which is the true law both of Church and State; for our Savior sayeth this is the law and the prophets.

"Therefore if any of these said persons come in love to us, we cannot in conscience lay violent hands upon them, but give them free egress and regress unto our town and houses, as God shall persuade our consciences, for we are bound by the law of God and man to do good unto all men and evil to no man."

The worst of our politics today arises from religious certainty regarding salvation and its equivalent zealotry among secularists and atheists. Matters that should be for private conscience and action are brought voluntarily into politics in order to usurp the powers of the state and to impose behaviors and beliefs on citizens of different faiths.

What started off in the 1970s as fear on the part of the Catholic Church and many evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants over the social and cultural consequences of what were believed to be religiously unrighteous sexual practices has become an intolerant political movement standing militantly and uncompromisingly against "liberals" and "big government."

The stridency and unforgiving nature of religious conflict has been applied, at times vindictively, to completely secular issues such as taxation and the financing of our health care needs. This has been destructive of our democracy.

The anti-clerical left, in the name of truth and science, is always up for a fight against what it considers to be religious obscurantism, and has matched presumed narrow-mindedness with unforgiving disparagement of faith-based beliefs on social issue after social issue from contraception and abortion to homosexual marriage; it treats advocates for low taxes and small government as heretics opposed to right and justice.

Abortion -- at the heart of our culture war -- is at the very bottom a kind of religious issue. Anyone's understanding of when we should say that human life begins is more faith-based than scientific. Does anyone know as a matter of uncontestable fact exactly when a human soul enters a body to make it a moral agent? Some believe at one date; others disagree. What proof do we have to insist that one is absolutely right and the other absolutely wrong?

Lost in this culture war have been the arts of democratic success: compromise, good will, respect as a fundamental norm, common sense, good humor, a sense for the tragic, humility, and many other most becoming virtues. In short, our divisive contentiousness has driven us far from realizing in our lives the best of human goodness.

Both sides throwing the sands of heresy at each other need to be reminded forcefully that politics is not the place for religious evangelism.

This understanding should be obvious to Christians. As the inhabitants of Flushing did in rejecting orders from the government to hound out Quakers, so today's socially conservative Christians should act according to Gospel warnings about Satan's kingdom: politics.

The gospel of Matthew relates that Christ rejected Satan's offer of vast earthly power, saying, "Get thee hence Satan: for it is written thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shall thou serve."

So if the earthly realm of powers and potentates is not the Kingdom of God, how then under gospel teachings are we to find our salvation? It is clear from the Gospels that we will not find our salvation in the state or through its administration.

Gospel salvation is an individual matter; it is up to each of us to believe or not believe in Christian truth. And, since the time when the Bible tells us Christ Jesus walked among us, some have believed and others have not. Further, we read in Christian scripture that the lord's judgment on the way we have lived our lives is his alone, not to be made by any human agency judging us more or less worthy of his good grace.

To me, then, a good and faithful servant of Jesus would never presume to use the state to coerce others as the way to bring them to eternal salvation. Let them find their own way in freedom of will and conscience.

A similar conclusion, to me at least, arises from a careful reading of the Holy Quran. That text speaks to individual consciences. It does not impose duties on any state to bring individuals to a knowledge of God's ways. At the time of the revelations, there was no state apparatus ordained by God for that purpose.

Secularism grounds its truth on reason and free thinking by individuals. It sanctifies the morally free self, unchained from any social or cultural convention. How, then, can the secular left demand that the state act as a theocracy and impose beliefs on any individual?

If I want to interpret Christian teachings and believe that contraception, abortions, and homosexuality will compromise anyone's salvation hopes and live my life consistent with those beliefs, who should be able to stop me?

And if, to the contrary, I want to compromise (from some Christian perspectives) my hope of salvation by accepting use of contraceptives and abortions and homosexuality, who has a right to use force against me and extract my obedience to a religious dogma through compulsion?

Now a sound separation of politics and religion does not require silence on a cultural or social level for religious beliefs and perspectives. One admirable consequence of living in a free society is regular confrontation with a diversity of people, ideas, creeds, and practices.

I think we each have a right, even a privilege, to speak of our faith and our beliefs and how we disagree with others. I think we should say without fear of being politically correct or insensitive whatever is important and fundamental to us -- what we revere, what we fear, what we admire, what we resent. If we give risk giving offense by being true in public to our beliefs, then our good faith and our humility in the face of the transcendent should carry us through as persons of character and integrity who have a right to our opinions.

It is our character and our integrity, after all, that elevate our democracy, not our fears or our prejudices.

Thus the needed removal of religious sectarianism from politics permits a non-coercive discussion of what each of us deeply cares about to inform others and perhaps even to persuade them to give heed to our point of view. But the point of politics can never be to impose our views about attaining eternal personal salvation on the beliefs and actions of others.

Published: Fri, Jun 29, 2012