I had a victory on Oct. 31, 2001, got one of my essays printed in the Roanoke Times, at the top of the "commentary" page.
Wednesday, October 31, 2001
Authority from the governed, not from God
Church-state separation stands to reason
By JOHN HODGES
THERE IS debate between conservative Christians and secular humanists
about whether this country is, was or was intended to be a "Christian
nation." Why should we have "separation of church and state"?
Questions about what the law says are secondary to what it should say;
debates over what the founders intended are important (revisionist history
is written for a reason), but secondary to why they intended it and whether
they were right in their views.
The founders were revolutionaries, taking their historical opportunity
to make a society that did things differently from precedent. For centuries,
indeed for ages, religion and government had been allied; tribal leaders,
Roman emperors and European kings claimed the support of divine powers for
their authority. The view that earthly governments get their authority from
God was expressed in the Bible , though hardly for the first time.
The record of divinely anointed government was not good. Those who think
they rule by the grace of God are tempted to think they are justified in
delivering hellfire upon their critics and opponents; tyranny and
persecution were the norm. In Europe, because Christianity had broken into
factions (despite all the efforts of the Catholic church) wars of religion
had raged, decade after decade.
The American founders were intending to set up a society of free men;
they rejected the idea of divinely anointed government, holding that free
men could govern themselves. Government would get its authority from the
consent of the governed. The Constitution was a peace treaty under which, it
was hoped, all possible factions were to work out their differences by
rational discussion and voting.
However partial their vision may have been, or imperfect the execution
of it in historical America, I think it is plain that we have avoided the
state tyranny, church corruption and religious warfare that had wracked
The idea that the actions of government were to be based on reason, that
the government was neither competent nor authorized to rule on religious
issues, that individuals were to be free in their religious lives, that
churches were to be neither suppressed nor privileged by the government was
a radical idea, contrary to the Christian tradition, contrary to the Bible.
Many of those who supported it (then and today) were Christians
themselves, yet they supported it because they knew there were many
different brands of Christianity, and their own brand was not guaranteed to
get on top, or stay there, and felt that the disagreements between
Christians should not be settled by force. Also, many of the founders were
Deists, holding what was itself a radical view: that "revelation,"
specifically including the Bible, was wholly untrustworthy, and religion
should be based on reason only.
Among modern critics of state/church separation, there are some radical
theocrats, "Christian reconstructionists" who wish to enact the laws of
Moses. Others take a more moderate position, saying that they don't wish to
establish an official church, but merely to have the government encourage
religion in general, because religion is where we get morality, and morality
is essential for a civilized society, even more for a free one.
Some don't even support that, but merely support political advocacy on
explicitly religious grounds; that citizens may, and should, support
legislation based on their religious views, with no other grounds required.
They say, "The First Amendment was meant to protect religion from the
government, not the government from religion."
But I say this "moderate" position is wrong on several counts. Morality
is about maintaining peaceful and cooperative relations with your neighbors;
religion sometimes supports this and sometimes not, and whatever it
supports, it does so on nonrational grounds. Morality is, indeed, essential
to a free people, but such morality as we need can and should be based on
reason. Faith and revelation are not open to reasoned argument;
disagreements can be settled only by force.
The government gets its authority from us, and "We, the People" have not
given it the authority to rule on religious matters. Whether monotheism is
true and good, or false and evil, is not the government's business to say.
Citizens may advocate whatever laws they like, on whatever grounds they
like; those who advocate altering the Constitution to establish a theocracy
have a perfect right to do so. But I also have the right to say that they
are wrong and should not get the support of people who wish to remain free.
Similarly, those who advocate laws on religious grounds may do so, and I
will point out that such grounds are arbitrary and subjective, based on
feelings and mythology instead of reason.
I further say such advocacy is contrary to the spirit (though not the
letter) of the peace treaty that is the Constitution. For if a law has no
rational, secular basis, and is passed only because of popular theological
views, then the force of law is being used by one religion to establish
itself, to that degree.
Down that road lies religious war, and the death of freedom.