As I See It
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third of a three-part series.
It is interesting to note that in his lengthy treatise, “Democracy in America,” Alex de Tocqueville devoted only one short chapter to the subject of democracy and religion, and his commentary is limited to the influence of the former over the latter, and makes no mention of the reverse. This may be due in part to the fact that at the time of his stay in this country (the early 1830s) it is estimated that perhaps no more than 15 percent of Americans were active church members. His analysis may also have reflected the strong language in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which states in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It is surprising that de Tocqueville didn’t take more notice of this constraint on government involvement in religious practice, since it was a significant departure from the imposition of a state religion, which was so common throughout most of the world.
There were two principle reasons why the 1st Congress chose to include this freedom of religion provision in the “Bill of Rights” Amendments to the Constitution. One was the grim example of centuries of unrelenting bitter warfare between countries dominated by competing religions. Although the real cause of most of these conflict was economics and politics, it was religion which was invoked to make them “holy causes” worth dying for, which people did by the hundreds of thousands. The 1st Congress wisely wanted to protect their new country from becoming involved in that kind of folly.
The second reason was the desire to separate the United States from any vestige of British domination, including the Anglican Church, which had been financed by a tax which the British had imposed on the colonies, requiring everyone to pay for a religious institution, regardless of whether they favored that religion or not. The religious group most opposed to this religious domination was the Baptists, and both clergy and members were widely persecuted by the colonial governors.
This separation between Church and State – rendering unto God what is God’s and unto Caesar what is Caesar’s – has served this nation well for over 200 years, during which church membership has increased to approximately 50 percent of the population. This bears out the conviction of both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who strongly supported the concept that both government and religion could serve their causes best if they each were free from interference from the other.
But we are now witnessing a disturbing weakening in the separation of church and state in America. The use of tax dollars to fund vouchers for private schools, the preponderance of which are religious schools, is too much like the tax imposed on the colonists by England to support the Anglican Church. In spite of that, a religious conservative Supreme Court has given school vouchers their stamp of approval. By executive order, President Bush has bypassed Congress to dole out taxpayer money to so-called “faith-based” (religious) charities, without oversight or nondiscrimination requirements.
On the international scene, religious conservatives and the Bush Administration are going against the will of Congress and the international community by imposing their antifamily-planning agenda on our foreign policy and a world sinking in overpopulation.
Joining religion with government is a bad combination. The process of government requires compromise, but since religion is based on absolutism, compromise is impossible, since it may he seen as sinning against God. Mixing religion and government opens the way to policies of intolerance and persecution.
Glenwood Springs resident Hal Sundin’s column runs every other Thursday in the Post Independent.
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