Tuesday, November 29, 2016
Church and State (Pt. 1) (H2)
Was the United States of America a founded on any religious basis or intentions? Should it be?
A good chunk of Americans would probably answer “yes, and yes.” These two questions are rooted in controversy, as Christianity is a hugely popular mover in American culture, particularly in the south. While the majority of Americans (71% according to a 2015 Pew Research study) subscribe to some form of Christianity, there are many entire demographics of Americans that lean a different way. And considering the amount of controversy that has existed in the last few decades over various forms established religion in government organizations (ie. Ten Commandments being hung in a courthouse), it can be argued that much more than this 29% minority of non-believers want to keep church and religion firmly separated.
Let’s first address the question of the U.S. being established on some sort of religious basis or intent. The short answer to this question is a definitive “NO.” For many decades, the religious right has tried to access the founders of America’s government as a source of support for their claims. They claim that because we are free to practice whatever religion we choose, then it is up to religious people to impose their religious will upon the government. Some also claim that our very government itself was based on Christian principles, and that we must uphold Christian principles in our government, as a result. These assumptions are overwhelmingly wrong, and are the product of wishful, biased thinking.
In his book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins explains that the founding fathers, to include Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and many others, were collectively quite secularist in their thinking. The government of the previous western power of their day, England, existed in tandem with the Church of England. The two were practically one and the same. For all the religious control that was exercised over their ancestors in England, the founding fathers wanted to eliminate the potential for any semblance of this to exist in the United States of America. Hence, why they broke off from the empire and formed a new nation in the first place. The founding fathers believed that neither the religion of one, such as the President, nor the religion of many, such as the Anglican Church, should carry any weight in the laws, policies, and decisions of a nation over its people.
So why then do we see instances of religious favoritism or endorsement in our government all the time? Why have we seen some state courthouses openly endorse the Ten Commandments by posting them on their wall? Why did George Bush openly declare “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots”, when asked about the patriotism of atheists in the U.S.? The truth is that religious zeal has become so widespread, among citizens and in turn their representatives, that it is now difficult to separate Christian objectives from our secular government in many instances. The Christian majority of voters has come to dominate the arena of influence because there are electors and appointed officials who are both part of this group, and who will act on behalf of their beliefs. Moreover, the religious objectives among Christians to impose their rules upon the nation as a whole have been allowed to be fulfilled in many instances because the opposition, or better yet our supposedly neutral and secular government, has not acted strongly enough to put a stop to it.
As to the question of how the Christian religion has come to dominate American culture and politics, Richard Dawkins admits that he can’t give one true answer. One of his theories is that the secularism of our government has given the religious right “free reign” to compete for followers in their congregations, and the freedom to pursue their biased objectives to no end. It is hard to say.
Anyways, our founding fathers were largely secularist in their thinking, and many of them were seemingly atheist in how they spoke of God and religion. The majority of them were learned men, and they all looked to one philosopher, John Locke, for many of their guiding principles regarding the relationship between church and state.
John Locke was a staunch opponent of mixing church and state. Locke argued that government is an entity existing for entirely different purposes than religious establishments. He also argued that it is the government’s job to secure the rights of the people from being trampled on by one another, not to enforce any sort of moral or religious code. Yes, Locke was also very religious (he was a Christian). But his logic was clear and simple:
“Covetousness, uncharitableness, idleness, and many other things are sins by the consent of men, which yet no man ever said were to be punished by the magistrate….the business of laws is not to provide for the truth of opinions, but for the safety and security of the commonwealth and of every particular man's goods and person”
As far as John Locke was concerned, ensuring that one man did not trample another’s rights should be the highest priority of our government. At the same time, he believed personal beliefs about morality should be maintained, but this was only up to the individual. If the religious establishment of our nation comes to mingle with any of our levels of government, then one of these two principles will inevitably be broken. Locke’s thinking was clearly replicated in many of our founders when they spoke of a “public morality” and a “private morality”, and how the two were mutually exclusive in theory and in practice.
A government’s desire to maintain good, should consist only of securing the rights each man has in regards to one another. It is not the job of any President, government body, or court to regulate what a man can and cannot do according to private belief. Issues such as same-sex marriage have been extremely hot topics in recent years, debated daily in the news by both sides. If Locke were to decide the issue, we have a pretty good idea what he’d argue. If such a law (banning same-sex marriage) exists only for religious reasons, rather than for any other reasonable rights-securing or utilitarian reasons, then there is no reason it should exist. Similar controversies exist over various other issues, such as abortion.
If we want to hold true to what our founders desired, then we should make every effort to ensure that religious influence and opinion play absolutely no part in our government. A just government that argues for man’s rights is secular, and therefore free, as it should be.