A big question of our day, and one of the largest issues that will affect the peace of the world is: Can people keep religion and government separated? For the next decade or two, a major part of the issue of whether the world will be at peace or at war will be determined by the answer to that question.

Most people in the world hold religious beliefs of some form. That is certainly a positive thing, and for people to derive morals from religious tenets and teachings is both natural and appropriate. But to claim one religious tradition as the basis for civil or criminal law can lead to internal and external strife, chaos and, eventually, war. So that is why the doctrine of the Separation of Church and State, as recognized by our Founding Fathers, is so critically important.

For evidence in the Muslim world, we need only look at the actions of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. By the decree of the governments that they influenced, non-Muslim books of all kinds were banned and burned, free discussion was not tolerated, and it was not only acceptable but increasingly justified to kill the infidels, who were defined as the “enemies of Islam.”  

It is harmful enough for individual people and groups to espouse such beliefs, but for governments to be run under these dictates is much more serious. Remember recently when the government of the Sudan charged a British teacher with “inciting religious hatred,” which is a crime punishable by anything from 40 lashes to death, because she allowed her students to name a teddy bear Muhammad? Some fundamentalists considered this act to be an insult to Islam and successfully invoked the sanction of government “to uphold their religion’s honor.” This was one of the better-known incidents, but in countries with religious governments incidents like this occur frequently.

Another example is found by the government of Iran enforcing the wearing of Muslim head coverings by women. Religious requirements like these are fine, as long as they are adhered to voluntarily by individuals who are applying their own religious convictions. But for a government to impose religious dictates upon anyone – believers or non-believers alike – is dangerous.

Governments in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries today have gone to the extreme in establishing Departments for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, and putting the sanctions of the government behind them. And whose concept of vice and virtue is being enforced? The religious fundamentalists.

Of further enormous concern is the current practice by Wahhabi sheiks from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, who are using some of their vast oil revenues to fund religious schools called madrassas in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as in their own countries. These schools teach young people to be violently intolerant of non-Muslims, to subjugate women, and to follow other radical single-mindedness. Wahhabi is a fundamentalist offshoot of Sunni Islam, is the official state religion of Saudi Arabia, and is steadily expanding its influence around the world. For example, the growing “Religious Right” movement in Europe is Muslim fundamentalism, so attitudes like this in Europe are on the rise.

I obtained much of this information by reading Gary Mortenson and David Oliver Relin’s book “Three Cups of Tea.” Mortenson has established about 32 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as healthcare facilities and centers where people can learn and practice small business skills like sewing and mountain climbing. After learning about Mortenson’s work, I join with him in believing that the best way to combat terrorism is to combat ignorance. I strongly recommend this book to you.

Disturbingly, the breaking down of the barrier between church and state is also going on here in America as well. For example, some Christian fundamentalists openly argue that governments in America must come under the control of religious leaders like them. With many of these people there are only two camps: Good and Evil, and they preach that not to be firm in what they define as “good” would be to tempt God’s disfavor and wrath.

This Christian fundamentalism movement has been greatly assisted by the increasing polarization of the people in our country. For example, I originally welcomed the coming of cable television with its large numbers of channels because I thought this would expose people to more varied points of view. But now I see that the reverse has actually occurred. Most of these channels cater their reporting and editorial comments to people who already have a fixed outlook and philosophy, and those people mostly only watch those stations. So this results in these people’s established views only getting more reinforced.

Aside from the concern that Christian religious fundamentalists could take us back to the mentality of the Spanish Inquisition or the Salem Witch Trials, the time has long-since passed that we can become a nation officially dominated by Christianity, or any other religion. One of the significant reasons is that at this point we have large numbers of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and others who rightfully see America as their country too, and the likelihood that they would respond violently if they were to be officially subjected to Christian or any other religious doctrines and dictates would be substantial.

To guard against this potential result we must stand firm in sponsoring a government that accommodates the free but peaceful exercise of one’s chosen religion, whatever it may be. But if we ever allow religious “errors,” misstatements or even tastelessness to be prosecuted or even prohibited, we will be on the road to facing the same type of problems that exist in some of these Muslim countries.  

So in matters of religion, government must be strictly neutral. People must be able to choose for themselves, even if they choose “badly.” If particular religious doctrines are “right,” they will win people’s hearts and minds in the free marketplace of ideas. But as soon as a government takes sides and starts to enforce one interpretation of religious “rightness” over another, religious zealotry will not be far behind. And soon thereafter will come violence, chaos, war, and the loss of the America that we know and love.

Finally, and as importantly, by enforcing the Separation of Church and State, we will not only protect government from religious zealotry, but we will also be protecting religion from governmental zealotry as well. So in the long run, religion and government will both win, and the world will also be more likely to be at peace.

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)