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Separation of Church & State—Again!

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There have been extremist voices advocating for a Christian government of the United States, or one based on Christian principles.  Once again, we have to remind ourselves that the dangerous mixing of Church & State is what our Founders avidly wished to avoid, since they understood the disastrous results of religious wars in Europe.

Nowhere in our Constitution is it mandated that the United States was to be a religious state or have a state religion.  There is no such wording in the Preamble, which sets out the aspirations for the establishment of government.  Also, the Oath of Office taken by the President (Article II, Section 1.) is explicitly spelled out in the Constitution, and there is no wording referring to God or religion.  The only mention of a supreme being is related to the date of ratification in 1787: “…in the Year of our Lord…” (Article VII), which was typical parlance of the day.  This boiler-plate wording is a badly, broken hook upon which to hang the heavy mantle of a state religion.

However, there is explicit wording contrary to the formation of a national religion.  In Article VI, “…no religious Test shall ever be required…”  This applies to all executive, legislative, and judicial officials at the state and federal level.  And, as strongly stated, in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” 

The lack of explicit wording for, and the prohibition against, a religious state makes the Constitution a decidedly secular document.

Furthermore, in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, in which the Kingdom of Tripoli promised to constrain the pirates under its jurisdiction from intercepting American merchant ships, Article 11 begins: “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion…” This treaty was negotiated under the watch of President George Washington and later, in 1797, the treaty was read aloud on the Senate floor, approved unanimously by the Senate, and then signed by President John Adams with an official declaration that he had seen and considered every clause and article in the Treaty.  Obviously, the first two presidents and senators were well aware of the importance of Separation of Church & State.

Our Constitution protects an expanded tolerance for all believers and non-believers.  Not only is the free exercise of all religions protected, but because freedom of thought and conscience are tightly entwined with the freedom of speech, the rights of an individual to be a non-believer is also protected.  U.S. Courts have supported this tolerance by regularly interpreting the Constitution as protecting the freedoms of non-believers.

The danger today is that, in a time of great economic stress, anxiety and fear, in a time of hateful scapegoating, with self-righteous demagogues waiting in the wings to grab political power, a breakdown of the Separation of Church & State could happen.  This could lead towards a state religion as the Founders feared, or at its worst, towards a fascist theocracy.  Either condition would be totally antithetical to any representative democracy.

The ever wise and quotable Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin, was asked outside Independence Hall, when the Constitutional Convention ended: “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”  He famously replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”  This warning still holds for us all today.

Philip A. Deutchman, Sandpoint

philipdeutchman(at)yahoo.com

 

 

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