Last weekend I went to see the Thomas Jefferson bible at the American History Museum. For those who don’t know, late in his life Jefferson cut and pasted together his own private version of the New Testament, excising all of the miracles and supernatural claims, and anything that could not be supported by reason, which brought the thing down to a lean 84 pages. It’s an extraordinary document and an extraordinary testament to the enlightenment values of free-inquiry which Jefferson did so much to champion and codify.
On the other side of the ledger, to put it mildly, we have Rick Santorum, absolutely mangling the intent of the Establishment Clause for us:
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum called Monday for a wider role for religion in public policy as he battled for conservative votes ahead of Tuesday’s Michigan primary.
“Freedom to worship is not just what you do in the sanctuary, it’s how you practice your faith outside of the sanctuary,” Santorum said. […]
“I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” Santorum said during the interview with ABC News This Week. “The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.”
I think one of the most bizarre widespread cultural notions is that somehow religion and religious people are under seige or at least generally unwelcome in American civic life. To godless ears like those of your humble blogger, this just sounds insane. I cannot fathom what mixture of victimhood and insecurity and cultural unease leads one to look at American politics and conclude somehow that there isn’t enough god-talk or appeals to biblical authority, or conspicuous avowals of faith as a virtue in itself. Could it possibly escape anyone’s notice for even a day that America is one of the most religious countries in the world? And that the large majority of its citizenry, and nearly all of its legislators, subscribe to various denominations of Christianity and have done so for all of its history?
I know no Republican candidate likes to mention this, but I am old enough to remember when George W. Bush used to be president. For those who can’t or would rather not recall, Bush was a president in the early 21st century whose election and reelection may be attributed in no small part to his very strong evangelical support. The eight years of the Bush administration were characterized by regular and overt public expressions of religious faith, an unprecedented attempt to infuse religion into governmental activities (most notably through the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives), as well as various attempts to mold science policy so as to comport with certain Christian moral doctrines. This was all done not despite, but because of the natural state of religiosity that suffuses all of American life, yet which the religious themselves seem to not notice. Despite President Obama’s apparently virulent “war on religion,” he has not shuttered Bush’s faith-based initiatives, and he has continued all the various religious ticks and panders that have become routine in the presidency (including attending the odious National Prayer Breakfast, hosted by a Congressional bible club whose members belong to a secretive, sinister organization which uses its influence to advance various Christian fundamentalist goals both here and abroad.)
So forget Santorum’s inexplicable fear that the teachings of Jesus Christ don’t command enough attention or respect in the United States of America.
How about his view that “the church should have more influence/involvement in the operation of the state”? Well it leads to a very obvious and difficult objection: which church?
The establishment clause of the first amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” does not just mean that the government cannot designate a national religion or a state church. It also means that the government cannot show preference for one religion over another, or for religion over irreligion.
Yes, people absorb various moral/cultural precepts from their religious experiences. And lots of people seem to want to take these precepts and translate them into legislation or public policy. Santorum often says that the greatness of America is that everyone can bring their ideas, religious and secular, to the public square and have it out. I agree to the extent that I don’t really care what motivates people to the public square. Zeus-worship, goldbuggery, Elvis fanatics, come one and all, I say. But quite contrary to Santorum’s perverse interpretation, the public square is most emphatically not a venue in which a majority of co-religionists may use their superior numbers to impose their own moral precepts on minority sects or those who claim no sect.
People forget or often misrepresent the origin of the phrase “separation of church and state.” Jefferson first wrote of the “wall of separation” in response to a letter sent to him by the Baptist Church of Danbury, Connecticut in 1802. The local Baptists were concerned with persecution and marginalization at the hand of the dominant Congregationalist sect. So religious liberty as understood by the man who authored the concept was meant to protect a minority sect from the tyranny of a majority sect. And indeed most every religious tussle in history has involved the attempted imposition of one sect over another, not “religion” vs. “secularism”. Therefore it is not just the unaffiliated but especially the devout who ought to cheer Mr. Jefferson and his revolutionary wall of separation, and abhor Mr. Santorum’s wish for a confessional cage match in the public square to decide biblical supremacy over our political institutions.
If Congress is to show no preference among the thousands of religions and scores of deities, and no preference for religion over irreligion, then regardless of one’s motivation, one must argue for policy on explicitly secular grounds. No matter what your strict Zeus-adherence says about sin and virtue, there must be a secular purpose and justification for your preferred policy. If you cannot present such a purpose and such a justification, then it’s back to the sanctuary for you. This is the genius of the system which Jefferson authored, and for which Santorum holds such contempt. Haste to the day when the public square is no longer blighted and polluted by his unlettered nonsense.