To protect the state — and the church

Last week we discussed a sermon I gave at the Garden Grove United Methodist Church, which focused on the decisions that Christians are called upon to make, and whether it makes any difference that we are Christians.

That discussion leads into another discussion I was involved in recently at St. Michael and All Angel’s Episcopal Church in Corona del Mar, about the importance of the separation of church and state. This subject can be considered controversial because some people consider that it could be seen as an attack on religion. I simply do not agree with that assessment.

I view this separation as being one of the most important war-and-peace issues of the 21st century. Of course there will be some exceptions, but in general governments that maintain the separation of church and state will be far less likely to be involved in war than those that do not. For example, we all should be concerned today about the governments of Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and others where religion plays a large part in the affairs of government.

Although we generally consider separation of church and state to be addressed in our Constitution, it is not all that clear. The 1st Amendment specifies that Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or the free exercise thereof, but that could be read as only controlling the actions of Congress, not those of individuals or churches.

The most-cited reference to the separation doctrine comes from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1802, well after the Constitution was ratified, to the Danbury Baptist Assn. of Connecticut.

In this letter Jefferson said that there must be a “wall of separation between church and state.” Nevertheless, the 1st Amendment was later interpreted by the United States Supreme Court as forbidding anyone from bringing religion into government, and vice versa.

This is considered an important issue because of the two goals connected to it. The first is to protect government from the undue influence of the church. That is not to say that governments cannot be influenced by religious values, and it does not imply that we should become a secular society. That is not even a part of the discussion, nor should it be! But if you look back into the history of our country, you will find that churches strongly influenced the Salem Witch Trials. Elsewhere, you will find similar tragic results with the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades and the Holy Roman Empire. That is not to say we are in imminent peril; it is simply to say that we should be aware that the seeds are there.

Similarly, the Catholic Church in the 1600s caused Galileo to be prosecuted for proposing the scientific belief that the Earth rotated around the sun. This is not an untypical response when churches have some controls over governments and governments attempt to question church dogma. The seeds are there as well for the suppression of such an inquiry.

More recently we see the involvement by the Taliban in blowing up statues of Buddha in Afghanistan because they presented “inappropriate influences” to the people. Similarly some governments require women to cover themselves with scarves and burqas, or countenance the stoning of women for perceived sexual or other transgressions. Religion is often corrupting of government, and it should be kept separate.

Furthermore, it is not hard for one person or a small group of people to accumulate a large amount of power and influence in a church. Most churches are designed that way, with examples being the pope in Rome, and the ayotollahs in Iran. No one should want church officials to become in any way in charge of civilian governments.

Besides, probably anyone who does not see the problem can almost immediately be helped to see the light by being asked the following question: How would you feel if the other guy’s religion is chosen to lead or have undue influence on your government? I think we all know the answer.

If our country were to choose to have a state religion, or even be strongly influenced by a particular one, a conservative Christian religion would probably be selected. But in reality it is too late. We have long since also become a nation of Jews, Hindus, Muslims, less conservative Christian religions and many other religions, and also of people who are atheists, humanists or who have no religion at all. And if those people felt that someone else’s beliefs were going to have undue influence with their own government, it could very well lead to a civil war. Why? Because they are Americans, too and would rightly not want formally to be discriminated against by their own government.

So what about “In God We Trust” on our currency, or “under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance? Is it unconstitutional? No, fortunately the courts understand that these are a large part of who we are, and an expression that, from the Founding Fathers on up until today, we are generally a God-fearing people, and that we trust and believe in God. The same thing is true for us to continue to celebrate Christmas as a national holiday, or for religious events or servants like Mother Teresa to be celebrated on our postage stamps. Of course, there will be those who try to “push the envelope” on both sides of those issues. But fortunately, the courts have seen it appropriate to celebrate and maintain the historical and traditional parts of our nation.

By analogy, probably aspirin would not be cleared today by the Food and Drug Administration, because it can be used in a dangerous if not life-threatening fashion. But we have grown up with it, it is a part of us and our culture, and there is virtually no chance that it will be recalled. Nor should it be. But had the phrase on our money been “In Jesus We Trust,” or the pledge instead contained “one nation under Buddha,” that would appropriately have been held to violate the Constitution and the doctrine of the separation of church and state.

The second critical goal is to enforce this separation for the protection of churches from the undue influence of government. When my wife, Grace, and I took our fabulous trip to Turkey, we learned that the government actually pays much of the salaries of the imams, who are the Muslim prayer leaders. When I asked why, our guide simply said that this was an effective way for the government to exercise some control over the actions of religious leaders. Obviously, these religious leaders would have a tendency to ease back on their criticism of the same entity that was issuing their paychecks. But the danger to religious freedom under those circumstances is obvious.

Similarly, we should be quite concerned about our government funneling charitable funds through religious institutions. It sounds fine in concept for the government to fund wonderful organizations like the Salvation Army and church-sponsored food kitchens for the poor, but remember that where government money is given, control is sure to follow. And then the “strings” attached to the funding invariably become ropes and chains. So in many ways it would be better for the money to be funneled to non-religious organizations. Besides, if the government funds your religious group’s charities, why shouldn’t it also fund mine? And that only begins the friction, because one person’s charity can quickly become another person’s terrorist group. Those conflicts will never end, so it is better not to get started down that road in the first place.

So for those reasons, we should try as firmly as we can to keep the function and control of government and of churches as separate as possible. That should not be seen as a comment that we are not supportive of religion or of government. In fact, it is a statement to the contrary — we actually support both. But true religious freedom can only be enjoyed, and government can only better provide equity, justice and protection for all, if the separation between the two of them is maintained.

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)