Ms. Buchanan’s Rejection of Church and State Separation
The beginning of the first amendment to our Constitution declares that we will “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It goes on to prohibit Congress from limiting our rights to free speech, press, assembly and petition. But it begins with some advice about religion and it does so deliberately.
Most of us recognize the “free exercise” clause. Our government should have no role in what we choose to believe. We are free to subscribe to any religion, sect, or denomination. We can even elect to believe in none at all. Yet it’s the other clause, which comes first, that we are prone to forget. We cannot “establish” a religion. In other words, it is forbidden to privilege one set of beliefs above another.
Our founders were familiar with established religion. The Church of England prevailed in the colonies and it was itsprivileged position the founders sought to banish. Popular stories of our founding then and now praised early dissenters like Roger Williams, when they founded settlements on the premise of welcoming diverse believers. Lord Baltimore, the Catholic founder of Maryland, likewise welcomed dissenters as did William Penn, a Quaker, in his colony of Pennsylvania.
The phrase “separation of church and state” is generally traced to an 1802 Thomas Jefferson letter in which he affirms to a Baptist congregation worried about the establishment of religion that the writers of our Constitution believed religion was “a matter … between Man & his God.” Government has no role in that relationship. Thus, he wrote, the new Constitution built “a wall of separation between Church and State.” It is a separation that I assume even Jesus would approve, given his advice to render unto Caesar what is his and unto God “the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22: 21, KJV). His statements built on the foundation laid in the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom (1786), which he authored.
So, Ms. Buchanan’s assertion in a Facebook post that the separation of church and state is a “false teaching” raises the question of in what way is it false? True, no man, woman or government can nor should wipe away our personal religious beliefs. They often form the ethical framework with which we view the world and they sometimes guide our personal behaviors. However, in a nation of diverse peoples, with diverse beliefs, it is contrary to the establishment clause to force those notions on others through public policy. We have never lived up to the aspirations of the establishment clause, but that doesn’tmean it is a false teaching.
In the same Facebook posting Ms. Buchanan notes that legalizing abortion was wrong and predicated on a lie. How she squares that assertion with the deeply felt religious beliefs of some people that life only begins at birth, not conception, is beyond me. For example, in Judaism, life starts with a first breath and that happens after, not before, a fetus enters the world. So, are those believers to turn their backs on their theology and adopt that of Ms. Buchanan? Isn’t that establishment of a set of beliefs? Doesn’t that compromise religious freedom? One wonders into what pretzels our conservative Supreme Court majority will twist itself when a case brought on behalf of religious freedom FOR abortion access appears, as it inevitably will.
That’s why that establishment clause was paired with a freedom clause when it came to religion. Religion is only free when it cannot be established. When we disagree, logic dictates that we use our faith to render personal decisions for ourselves and not policy, legislative or judicial decisions for everyone. Ideological absolutists have entangled us in tribal divisions on behalf of ideas worthy of authoritarians and Grand Inquisitors rather than falling back on two very sound pieces of advice: Caesar does Caesar’s work and God does God’s work with a wall of separation between them.
Not only do I worry about people who think that wall is a false belief, but I fear what they might do to our great country. In the name of their religion, they want to shut down conversations. They forbid books. They hope to dictate which ideas we can encounter and which we must avoid. In public schools, they support a regime of ideologically pure “instruction” and avoid “education,” which requires critical thinking and openness to new ideas. Instruction makes us alike; education allows for difference. A nation instructed is a nation dead in the water, unwilling and, ultimately, unable to deal with what tomorrow may bring. That is the world established religions make and it is not one in which I or any other freedom-loving American should wish to live.
When it comes to Caesar’s world, “true believers” must be true believers only for themselves and their families. Hate abortion? Don’t have one, but remember that many sincere believers of other religions do not believe that life begins with conception. Want to put limits around what young people should know or encounter? Do that with your own children, but do not inflict that requirement on the children of people who do not share your belief system. Want a restricted curriculum reflective of your sense of what the world is like? Opt for private schools; that is not the task of public ones.
Let me be very clear. I am not saying that in public schools children should be exposed to things that are age-inappropriate. Obviously, adults have a responsibility to monitor what children encounter, but they also have a responsibility, at least in a free country, to ensure they engage with facts, with history (both the good and the bad parts of it), and with diversity. Ultimately, children belong to themselves, not their parents nor their country nor one set of ideas. That’s what freedom, something Ms. Buchanan repeatedly touts in her campaign literature, is all about.