“The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe with blood for centuries.” ~ James Madison
Within the space of a few recent days, two very different men died under very different circumstances: former President Gerald R. Ford and former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Those deaths inspired a letter to the editor from Gilroyan Jim Langdon.
Of Ford, Langdon wrote that because he “… placed his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, is with Him in paradise today – for eternity.”
Of Hussein, Langdon wrote, “… one can be certain, because of his defiance and unrepentance, that Saddam is in Hades with the devil himself today, and, likewise for eternity.”
Langdon concluded, “There is a greater controversy to consider here: In Whom shall we place our faith and how, then, shall we live.”
Because these are matters of faith, not objectively provable fact, it’s unseemly to speculate on the eternal fates of these men. Any judgments of these men ought to be based their deeds, not their religious beliefs.
But Langdon’s letter makes it clear – unintentionally, I suspect – why separation of church and state is so important: Without that separation, whose religion does the state choose?
(Save an email message: I know that those words, “separation of church and state,” don’t appear in the Constitution or Bill of Rights. The concept is clearly described in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Similarly, the words “eminent domain” don’t appear in these documents, but the concept is clearly described in the Fifth Amendment.)
Every religion has faith and faith alone to support its claims. Muslims – whether Sunni or Shiite – believe that their path to a happy eternity is the right one just as fervently as Christians – whether Catholic or Quaker. Thanks to the Establishment Clause, the state cannot say one faith is “right” and all of the others are “wrong.”
That’s what makes the controversy about newly elected Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minn., so frustrating. Ellison used a Koran for his swearing-in ceremony. In the end, Ellison’s decision to use a Koran once owned by Thomas Jefferson made an eloquent statement about the entire controversy.
Nevertheless, his use of a Koran roused the ire of many on the religious right. Some proposed that a law be passed to require that members of Congress use a Bible during swearing-in ceremonies.
Would the law specify which version of the Bible must be used in swearing-in ceremonies: King James? New International? Living? Old Testament only? New Testament only? Would a Bible with the Book of Mormon be allowed? Mormons serve in Congress, and we’re likely to have a Mormon presidential candidate in 2008.
If we’re going to allow swearing-in ceremonies for government posts to include holy books, then we have to allow them to include any holy book. Otherwise, we’re violating the Establishment Clause.
The Koran swearing-in controversy inspired Congressman Virgil Goode (R-Va.), to write to his constituents to complain about immigration policy.
Apparently, Goode is ignorant of or ignoring the fact that Ellison comes from a Catholic family that’s been in the United States for centuries. Ellison converted to Islam in college.
Goode’s immigration policy complaints are clearly beside the point. What Goode would have to do to preserve Christianity – and because he wrote of his “fear” of “many more Muslims in the United States” and his desire to “preserve … beliefs traditional to … America,” that is apparently his ultimate goal – is to institute a state religion and restrict the free flow of ideas. History tells us that those inherently un-American steps would fail miserably.
And thus, we’re back to the importance of the separation of church and state.
Separation of church and state protects the most religious among us. Instead of working to destroy the separation that protects their religious freedom, the most religious among us ought to passionately defend it.
If you want to do just that, a group exists for that purpose: Americans United for Separation of Church and State. See their web site for more information.
“Separation of church and state is the only principle that can ensure religious and philosophical freedom for all Americans.” ~ Americans United for Separation of Church and State