Monday, March 20, 2006

A New Separation of Church and State

Kevin Phillips's new book, "American Theocracy" addresses, in part, the rising influence of religion in the affairs of state. Despite Thomas Jefferson's quote about "a wall of separation," religious leaders have more sway in the halls of power than at any time in America's history. Our President has said, "God wants me to be President," and that rather than going to his own father for advice, he seeks counsel from "a higher father."

Neocons will often counter that the Constitution says nothing about separation of Church and State, but only that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." It says nothing about the influence religion should be able to have on the thought processes of lawmakers and executives.

The problems begin when two different schools of religious thought come into conflict. When it gets down to "God said x" or "No, God said y" or "What God MEANT to say was z," how does one decide which is right? On an individual level, that's easy -- you make up your own mind about what feels true. But at the level of, say, the Supreme Court, there is no way to rationally define religious truth. The Court stays out of it. "God said, I believe it, that settles it" doesn't cut it. You have to base your arguments for or against a certain position solely on the the Constitution and established case law.

Unfortunately, there seem to be plenty of voters who think we'd be a lot better off if judges applied Christian theology to their decisions. Not just judges, either: senators, the President, the Undersecretary for Housing and Urban Development, everybody.

My thought is that we need to go in the exact opposite direction. Not that those who make, execute, enforce and interpret the law shouldn't be religious, but that they erect a wall of separation between their personal beliefs and their public duty. In fact, that each of us as voters should erect such a wall, so that religious thought does not obscure that duty. We can have faith to guide us in our invidivual lives, but when it comes to making decisions for our communities, we should be guided solely by what logic, rationality and common sense indicate is best for the overall good.

We should choose our leaders not because they are Baptists or Episcopalians or Presbyterian, but because they have the skills and commitment to lead. We should make laws not because they agree with the Bible, but because they make sense for our communities. We should implement policies not because we hear the inner stirrings of what we believe is God speaking to us, but because the policies are effective.

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