Monday, May 10, 2010

Separation of Church and State Must Be Protected

Thomas Jefferson would have seen the Religious Right as perhaps the greatest threat to the continued freedom of the American people. Some pundits have asserted that the political power of the Religious Right has been on the decline in recent years, but 21st Century Jeffersonians shouldn't be fooled. They are not disappearing from the political scene anytime soon.

Well-organized and well-funded, activists of the Religious Right have been doggedly pursuing their vision of a Christian America for the past several years. It is a vision that most of the Founding Fathers, and Thomas Jefferson in particular, would have found horrifying and abhorrent. For they envisioned a completely secular government that had no power over the religious lives of its citizens. In the words of Jefferson himself:

[O]ur rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. But the rights of conscience we have never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
What the Religious Right wants is for the government to have the power to dictate to American citizens on matters of religious belief. They constantly attempt to use the power of the courthouse, the state legislatures, and Congress itself to advance their agenda. They seek to impose their views on sexual morality onto the rest of society, to block the teaching of perfectly sound scientific theories because they feel they violate their particular interpretation of Scripture, to subject judicial nominees to de facto religious tests (in violation of the principle of Article VI, Section 3 of the Constitution), and to divert taxpayer money to religious organizations.

In addition, the Religious Right seems to be generally in favor of high federal defense spending and a militaristic foreign policy, which is quite a contrast to the admonitions of Jesus to turn the other cheek and love our enemies. Oddly enough, these people claim to oppose "Big Government", but they seem more than happy to support a big government if it were to follow their orders and they clearly want a government big enough to interfere with the personal lives of its citizens.

Thomas Jefferson stood opposed. And so must 21st Century Jeffersonians.

Jefferson, more than any other figure in American history, is responsible for the establishment of the separation of church and state in our country. Indeed, he coined the phrase himself in his famous 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, in which he says:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between church and state.
Jefferson was referring, of course, to the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which clearly states that the government has no authority to act either on behalf of or in opposition to any religious opinion.

Jefferson had been working on behalf of religious freedom and the separation of church and state for some time before he wrote that letter. In 1779, he had authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which separated church and state in Virginia. Jefferson thought his authorship of this bill so important that he included it as one of only three achievements he desired to be listed on his gravestone.

Separation of church and state is especially critical in the United States because we are one of the most religiously diverse nation in the world. If any one religious opinion in our country were allowed to gain traction as an officially favored faith, it would trigger the same kind of religious violence that has torn many countries apart throughout history (and which, in recent months, has been seen in Malaysia and Nigeria).

Jefferson knew from history that mixing religion and government was always an insidious proposition. 21st Century Jeffersonians must always maintain eternal vigilance on this subject, and keep a wary eye on the Religious Right.

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