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A lot of people on my FB feed have been using the phrase "separation of church and state" like it's an illegal thing. Or even just an immoral thing. So it got me wondering wondering: is it?

If I recall correctly, the phrase is from a private letter written by Thomas Jefferson, expressing how he personally interpreted the whole idea of "Congress shall make no law respecting religion."He thought it would be good for religious people to be free to live out their religion any way they like - in private. The government was to not meddle in a man's beliefs, only govern his action. The problem of course is that for a lot of people (myself included) religion involves actions. None of those actions are illegal, in my circumstance, but they are in others. Just look at the backlash against the healthcare law that requires all employers (including religious colleges + hospitals) to provide health insurance covering contraception. Many people - I'm not talking to the activists and the more political side of things, but individuals I know - feel this law forces them to act against what their religion requires of them. My point isn't that they're right, but that conflicts like this are conceivable. That's because religion just isn't about beliefs and what you do at home.

Speaking as a religious person I find it highly offensive to think that someone else's religion should limit my freedoms. I also think it's poisonous to religions to get so involved in politics, and obviously it's bad for society as well. (For one thing, democracies rely on citizens voting their conscience, not how someone else has told them to vote - even if that person is their bishop.) I could go on about this all night. And that's how I understand the freedom of (and from) religion: no one has the right to make someone who's not a member of their religion do something because their religion requires it. The force of law doesn't get to impose religious beliefs on people.

But separation of church and state goes much further than that. Many people in society are religious, and I personally don't think it's a bad thing if they act out that religion in a way that doesn't interfere with other peoples' rights. Rights is actually too restrictive here, because it tends to ignore how our actions affect others; Westboro may have a right to picket soldiers' funerals but that doesn't make it the right thing to do.

Religion is a big part of a lot of peoples' lives (myself included), and I'm not against our schools teaching about that part of human society. I'm also not against our legislators inviting someone to pray to unofficial meetings. I don't even think it's out of line for a religious person to say "I believe X, Y and Z because that's what my religion teaches," as part of the debate over a certain policy. The tricky thing here is we can't treat that as an actual argument. Freedom of religion doesn't mean you get the right to make others follow yours, and if you want to convince people who don't accept your particular holy text (pardon the pun) as gospel. If you want to convince other people you'll probably need to go beyond "The Bible tells me so." (I also firmly believe that people can accept the same religious values and still vote differently, for a variety of reasons; this is part of why religions shouldn't be saying "vote for this guy.")

So I can get all on board with freedom of and from religion, with all the limits that implies. (As a member of a majority religion, a lot of the limits fall on me and my Christian compatriots.) But multiculturalism - which I also believe in - says you respect who I am and let me express it in public, even if it's not like you. That's so important! I've been in situations where I couldn't speak my mind for various reasons, and it's pretty miserable. It's also hard to have genuine friendship and society there. That requires authenticity, which requires me bringing my whole self to the table.

Of course the devil's in the details. I'm not crazy about "Bible" classes in public schools, especially in areas that are overwhelmingly Christian because I think they single out non-Christians as different and make school a tough place to be, for instance. Finding that line between religious coercion and religious expression can be fiendishly difficult. But I still think it's a good line to look for. I fully respect the right of atheists and noon-Christians to express their beliefs and values in the public square, and maybe convince me they're good values if you can use logic and my own values to make that case. It just seems that turnabout's fair play here.

Comments

( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
gwynnyd
Aug. 31st, 2012 07:38 am (UTC)
But... but.... Marta, the whole point of a separation between church and state is that *government* has to be neutral on the position of religion - any person can do whatever they want as long as it does not come from an official, government position.

NO school or government function *should* have or do anything that favors one theological position over any other. Any *person* in the audience or at the school or on the panel or in the legislature can indulge in any religious thoughts they like. Prayer or religiously motivated behavior *by individuals* is NOT prohibited in schools or anywhere else.

Speaking as a religious person I find it highly offensive to think that someone else's religion should limit my freedoms.

Speaking as an atheist, I find it highly offensive that someone else's religion should limit my freedoms, too.

I'm not crazy about "Bible" classes in public schools, especially in areas that are overwhelmingly Christian because I think they single out non-Christians as different and make school a tough place to be, for instance.

Wait! What? You think the Bible should only be taught in schools *without* a majority of Christian students?

So... er... how do you feel about "Koran" or "Wiccan" classes being taught in every school and kids are shamed by the teachers if they don't attend?

If religion should be taught in schools, as you seem to think it should be, why should kids *not* be exposed to *many* ideas of how religions work, or that no religion is also a valid position, from childhood and all sincerely taught as "this is what a lot of good, moral people believe"? Why should "the Bible" be privileged over any other religious text *in the pubic sphere*?

It shouldn't. There should be a very firm separation between church and state, always. It's the only fair position for an official body.

Of course, I respect who you are and you can express your religious fervor almost any time - you only have to be officially neutral if you represent the state.

I am quite sure that any "Bible" class that is taught in school (unless in the very rare case where it is really a "Bible as literature" or a "Bible as history" where the places the Bible is neither great literature nor accurate history are pointed out) carries with it the connotation that "The Bible" has the one and only path to God and everyone else is going to the very Christian hell. How do you teach "the Bible" without that? And that's WRONG. A significant percentage of Americans do not take "the Bible" as revealed truth at all, but they are still Americans and still deserve an education free of coercion to believe as the majority. This holds for any other belief as well - none should be taught in public schools.

I don't even think it's out of line for a religious person to say "I believe X, Y and Z because that's what my religion teaches," as part of the debate over a certain policy. The tricky thing here is we can't treat that as an actual argument.

It's not out of line to say it, but I know of NO debate where it *isn't* treated as an argument. Even *in this post* you treat your religious beliefs as an argument for blurring the First Amendment's mandate of a separation between church and state! It's not supposed to be about what makes your Christian sensibilities - or my atheist sensibilities, or a Muslim's or a Sikh's or a Hindu's or a Wiccan's or Jew's - happy. It's about official, government sponsored fairness to everyone. I think the line between "religious expression" and "religious coercion" is really easy to find. If there is state approved religious speech in a state sponsored area or if is illegal to act against a religious idea, then it's coercion. If Paul Ryan says, "Abortion is absolutely against my religious values, therefore abortion must be made absolutely illegal with no exceptions." that's coercion. If he says, "Abortion is absolutely against my religious values and I personally do not approve of the procedure because of...., but I cannot legislate my religion for everyone." that's expression. If a teacher says a silent prayer for strength before class and wears a crucifix, that's expression. If a teacher leads a prayer at the beginning of class every day, that's coercion.
gwynnyd
Aug. 31st, 2012 07:39 am (UTC)
it made me split the comment! I didn't realize I was writing that much!


I've been in situations where I couldn't speak my mind for various reasons, and it's pretty miserable.

Exactly. And it's a whole lot worse and a lot more common thing to feel when you don't happen to be Christian. Every "Have a blessed day" at a store checkout makes me cringe but I don't say anything because I don't have any right at all to make them stop blessing me and they have every right to say it. On the other hand, when someone says I have to, for example, pay extra for contraception or have it not be available at all because they don't want me to use it for their religious reasons, that's stepping over a line that should not be crossed.
marta_bee
Aug. 31st, 2012 09:22 am (UTC)

You made a lot of points here and I don't really have time to address them all. However, I did want to reply to at least some points you made. I'm sorry if I skip over something you thought was important.

NO school or government function *should* have or do anything that favors one theological position over any other. Any *person* in the audience or at the school or on the panel or in the legislature can indulge in any religious thoughts they like. Prayer or religiously motivated behavior *by individuals* is NOT prohibited in schools or anywhere else.

I think I'd agree with that, but I'm not 100% sure – mainly because I'm not quite clear what you mean by "favors one theological position over any other." Let's take a hypothetical class taught at a public high school, a survey of various world religions' histories and beliefs. The teacher says that Presbyterian Christians believe in preordination, while Baptists teach salvation is open to everyone, "preordained" or not. I'd say that if she stops there – if she just lays out what different groups believe – there's no first amendment problem. On the other hand if she says Presbyterians believe this, Baptists believe that, and the Baptist approach is the better one – well, that's a violation of church/state.

If that's what you mean, I'd agree with you. But I don't think everyone who talks about the separation of church does. It seems whenever some school proposes a course looking at the history of religion or a survey of different religious beliefs or the use of the Bible as literature, someone says that crosses the line with separation of church and state. No matter how it's done. I hear similar charges against events where politicians are present (but that aren't themselves official government events), if the prayers aren't so general they could apply to any kind of monotheism.

I'm not so blind that I don't see the political maneuverings here. When Rick Perry appeared at that Dominionist prayer rally during his campaign, I thought it was majorly divisive. And when a governor in a conservative state (Jan Brewer in AZ is the latest example) gives permission for schools to teach the Bible, I know it's part of the culture war. But this knee-jerk reaction in the name of church/state concerns does real harm, too. When NYC put on a memorial service for the tenth anniversary of 9/11, they didn't invite any clergy at all – and in NYC, especially in ethnic neighborhoods, many peoples' religion is at the heart of their identities (Greek Orthodox, Irish Catholics, etc.) I'm not saying the city had to put on a Catholic mass or whatever as their memorial service, but by not having clergy even present, I know a lot of people felt like a part of who they were wasn't welcome there.

And on the education front, we're suffering, too. Set aside the practical implications for international politics and business – just look at the way the media portrays different American religious groups. It's easy to be dismissive of religious groups when the only thing you know about them is the picture the media paints. It's also easier for religious groups to go to the fringe when that's what everyone expects of them. Religion is an important cultural factor and even if you think it's false or harmful, it still needs to be understood. And in America we do a truly crappy job of educating (not indoctrinating) people when it comes to religion.

Speaking as an atheist, I find it highly offensive that someone else's religion should limit my freedoms, too.

I understand that. And I think the "no law respecting an establishment of religion" ensures that: the government can't make a law because a certain religion claims it's true. It also can't make a law that advantages one religion (or lack thereof) over another. But that doesn't require the government to pretend like religion doesn't exist or doesn't influence people. It just requires that government not be in the business of promoting or defending one religion over another.

marta_bee
Aug. 31st, 2012 09:23 am (UTC)
So... er... how do you feel about "Koran" or "Wiccan" classes being taught in every school and kids are shamed by the teachers if they don't attend? If religion should be taught in schools, as you seem to think it should be, why should kids *not* be exposed to *many* ideas of how religions work, or that no religion is also a valid position, from childhood and all sincerely taught as "this is what a lot of good, moral people believe"?

I hope you know me better than to think I'd argue for anything like that. I mentioned Bible classes because it was on my mind. Like I said above, a state governor just passed a law saying Bible classes were allowed in public schools. I would absolutely support a course on the Koran and on the beliefs/history of eastern religions. The only reason to focus on one text/history over another is because it has a bigger impact. With all the wars going on in the Middle East, I think it's a first-class shame that you can graduate high school and not know the difference between a Sunni and Shiite Muslim, for instance. I have nothing against teaching Wicca. The only reason to focus on the Bible is because it's impacted Western Civilization more than the Bhagavad-Gita has. This isn't just about politics; it's hard to understand western art and literature if you aren't familiar with certain Bible stories.

I am emphatically not suggesting we have Bible indoctrination courses in the public schools. But there's a lot about the Bible and later Christian history that you need to know in order to be well-educated. Ditto for other religious traditions. They should be taught as history and literature (not true ideology), in proportion to the influence they have over western civilization and the modern world.

Why should "the Bible" be privileged over any other religious text *in the pubic sphere*? It shouldn't. There should be a very firm separation between church and state, always. It's the only fair position for an official body.

Again, we need to be clear what we mean by a "firm separation." Do you mean that the government doesn't get to teach one religion is true? Then I absolutely agree. The problem is that a lot of people take "separation of church and state" to mean the state can never mention particular churches/synagogues/whatever. Even descriptively rather than normatively. And that's a problem because it leads to a lot of people only understanding the religion they've picked up from the news or from their own religious leaders (which is obviously biased). Given how many Americans claim to be religious, we're really very undereducated when it comes to religion.

Public events like the 9/11 memorial I mentioned are trickier. I actually do get how it could be painful to see the mayor standing beside a Catholic priest at an event designed to commemorate everyone who died that day. But excluding clergy isn't neutral; it comes across as exclusionary to people who are religious. I personally think the best approach would be to include both a variety of religious clergymen alongside representatives of non-religious groups (perhaps a member of a local Freethought group could read a poem or give a short statement praising the resiliency of the human spirit or something that was completely nonreligious). The purpose being to make clear that the memorial service represented a wide range of religions along with the nonreligious.
marta_bee
Aug. 31st, 2012 09:24 am (UTC)

I'm not quite sure where to find the balance. I know I'm a Christian, which puts me in a very different position from you as an atheist – things that I probably don't think twice about would rub against you. I did get a taste of that, since I grew up in a rather evangelical community and I'm anything but. And yes, a lot of that religiosity rubbed me the wrong way. (This is only a taste, not the full measure of your experience, of course.) So I'm sensitive to how having a priest on a stage beside a government official can be offputting. But I honestly think American society goes too far the other direction, a lot of times. It's one thing to say America has no religion; it's quite another to say individual Americans can't have their religion or lack thereof welcomed at events that honor all Americans.

Where exactly to draw that line? I honestly don't know. :-)

And thanks for reading all this! LJ demanded three comments from me. Feel free to reply to any or part of it if you like. I'll certainly read what you say, but this weekend I've got a lot to get done so I may not have time to reply.
gwynnyd
Aug. 31st, 2012 04:28 pm (UTC)
The teacher says that Presbyterian Christians believe in preordination, while Baptists teach salvation is open to everyone, "preordained" or not. I'd say that if she stops there – if she just lays out what different groups believe – there's no first amendment problem. On the other hand if she says Presbyterians believe this, Baptists believe that, and the Baptist approach is the better one – well, that's a violation of church/state.

If that's what you mean, I'd agree with you. But I don't think everyone who talks about the separation of church does. It seems whenever some school proposes a course looking at the history of religion or a survey of different religious beliefs or the use of the Bible as literature, someone says that crosses the line with separation of church and state. No matter how it's done. I hear similar charges against events where politicians are present (but that aren't themselves official government events), if the prayers aren't so general they could apply to any kind of monotheism.


But how often does a "history of religion" or a "survey of religion" class in a not-university setting get taught impartially? I'd say the majority of them are taught by people who are *unable* to separate their beliefs from their teaching. Even if they give lip service to other interpretations, I would not trust them to keep their own beliefs out of the classroom. Maybe that's me being cynical, but there are too many horror stories about teachers and administrations and elected government officials ignoring the First Amendment. See Jessica Alquist's story, where the *Congressman* from her district called her "an evil little thing" in public for pointing out that her school was in violation of the First Amendment by having a prayer to Jesus painted on the wall of the school. The courts agreed, but the teachers and the administration did nothing to protect her and joined in her quite public vilification.

If you are arguing that the prayer should be allowed to be there... well, why? Doesn't a prayer to Jesus on the wall of the building create the impression that other religions or a nonreligious stance is not as acceptable in the school? The school was offered the option of editing out the two lines that referred to Jesus but they insisted that the whole prayer HAD to stay because t reflected their religious beliefs. I'll bet that if someone insisted on the same reasoning to get a prayer to Allah, or a statement that no god exists, or a message from any other position painted next to it, they would have been equally, vociferously, utterly and as nastily opposed to that.

or the high school coaches that insist that their starting lineups go to Christian sport camps in the summer

or the Jewish communities in New York who want no women to ride busses through their neighborhoods

well, there's hundreds probably thousands of anecdotal reasons why keeping church and state separate are good things.

Yes, certainly, in an ideal world the varieties of religious experience could be rationally discussed and universally celebrated... but that does not happen. Too often whatever religion is in the dominant position is hell-bent (yeah, I know - see how pervasive the imagery is? I'm never going to be actually hell-bent since I am quite sure that hell is not real but can I certainly be 'stubbornly or recklessly determined" on a course of action) on suppressing the rights of any minority. It's a fairly common experience: thinking that just by *mentioning* that some people have other opinions that perhaps ought to be respected, the dominant groups are insisting that they are the ones being persecuted.

The founders of our country had just gone through the horrors that come from overzealous state religions. I think they were right to protect minority opinions from the tyranny of the majority.

gwynnyd
Sep. 4th, 2012 05:16 am (UTC)
I'd also like to stress that "there is no God" is also *not* a position that the state should sponsor. Schools and government need to be *neutral* on the subject so that *no* theological position is privileged.

Apropos to the discussion, I saw these by Austin Cline -

Christian Privileges in American Society: Hidden Ways Christians are Privileged

http://atheism.about.com/od/christianismnationalism/p/XianPrivileges.htm

that you might find interesting.
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