On the Separation of Church and State – Kally Leidig

For the longest time my favorite President was, and to some degree still is, Thomas Jefferson. My affection was not the result of his inventing the swivel chair, introducing the United States to ice cream, or constantly searching for a then extinct Mastodon. Instead, it was tethered to his position on Church and State. His call for a “wall of separation” between the two always struck me as a brilliant policy for ensuring religious freedom and disentangling two deeply complicated features of the human condition. In Jefferson’s time, a separation meant the State could not promote or prohibit any religion and, unless theocracies are your thing, I don’t suspect many people have an issue with that.

My reverence for the ‘wall of separation’ continued subconsciously until my roommate said something I found very curious: “why can’t Christians leave the bible out of politics?” For the first time I can remember, I began arguing against the secularization of public life. Initially, I wasn’t sure if I was simply playing devil’s advocate or if I believed what was coming out of my mouth.

As it turns out, and contrary to my ardent atheism, I was greatly in favor of upholding religion’s role in government. I was reminded of Van Orden vs. Perry, a Supreme Court case, which argued the Ten Commandments could be secular because they were used to shape the Constitution.

If that is true, and I believe it is, can this country ever escape its religious roots? And what about people’s personal constitutions: the thoughts, ideas, and worldviews that shape our fundamental beliefs, morality, and purpose? For many people this figurative constitution is their religion. To ask someone to ‘keep the Bible out of their politics’ is to ask someone to keep their morals and other fundamental commitments out of politics. The removal of morality from the public sphere cannot be the answer to this, as it is essential for social progress and prosperity. However, this raises an interesting question: where is the line between imposing your religion on others and making a decision on the basis of your morality?

After reflecting upon this question, I have found no algorithm to distinguish the two and I don’t know if there is one. In order to exploit one for the sake of humanity, perhaps we must tolerate the other; or maybe not. I am comforted by my belief that morality is far from stagnant and that no religion, opinion, or view is free from evolving further. We as a society have a lot of power in choosing what we view as moral overreach vs. basic human decency. Just because social norms can partially regulate this grey area, doesn’t mean it isn’t deservant of thought. We must think carefully and deeply, and try to understand the positions and intentions of our opponents. Too often energy is wasted in futile efforts of persuasion, simply because we fail to acknowledge the validity of alternative schools of thought and speak in terms only we understand.

How do you distinguish between imposing religion on others, and making a decision on the basis of your morality? How do you think we as a society should deal with this dilemma?

5 thoughts on “On the Separation of Church and State – Kally Leidig”

  1. Hello Kally,

    I found your post so interesting. Especially when thinking about the fact that as an atheist you still hold space for religion being part of politics. It makes me think about the U.S. and whether we can really be secular because as you mentioned people who may be elected will have their morals which a lot of times comes from religion guide them in office. Distinguishing between my morals and putting them on others I believe is not so hard, to me respect other people’s positions on issues in politics, but that does not mean that I agree that based on their faith we should have laws and policies. As not everyone is of the same faith in this country.

  2. Hi Kally,

    Your post actually brings up a debate I have with myself quite often. You ask, “can this country ever escape its religious roots?” and then go on to say that it cannot. You claim that religion is intrinsic to the nation and its documents. I would argue that this is also true of people. Can a person ever escape from being shaped by the religious contexts they grew up around? The ultimate conclusion of my debate is this: can a person really be an atheist? Especially in Western society, can a person really claim to not be religious? Even if you do not claim to believe in a God, is God, not something/one that has shaped you and your beliefs? If you do not believe in God, then are you not rejecting yourself and your roots? This might seem poorly formed in thought. Sometimes I feel like Prince Mishkin in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot because I have this idea in my mind that I cannot express well. I do not intend to offend. I simply have trouble understanding how an atheist can argue that religion cannot be separated from the state, but it can be separated from the self.

  3. Hi, Kally! You pose a very relevant and interesting question, or maybe even dilemma, for the times. One thing that comes to mind for me is the importance of realizing that our own morals and values, as important and valid as they are to us, are not the only ones that exist. Different religions propose differing world-views, and spheres of thought such as science and medicine, philosophy and history also add new perspectives to the way we think about issues that concern us today. Very often, many of these areas of thought interact and influence each other. When making policy, participating in government, etc., I think it’s important to focus on this interaction, and recognize that we cannot make decisions solely based on one sphere of thought (ex. religion) and ignore another (ex. science/medicine). Rather, we need to focus on ways that these different views can coexist and cooperate, finding middle ground that is fair and equitable for everyone. Of course, this is much easier said than done, but this goal is certainly a place to start.

  4. Hi Kally!
    I think this was a super interesting blog post, and the way you wrote it kind of sounds like someone speaking in a podcast and it was just so good, especially the first paragraph 🙂 In terms of your question, I kind of have issues with the separation of church and state going in the other direction. It bothers me when my religious spaces start becoming politicized. I understand that in an ideal world, everyone’s political decisions (how they vote, which party they register with if any at all) are based on their moral outlook, and traditionally our morality is often rooted in our religion. But I think that it should be up to individual people to make the connection between those two things. I want to be able to go to my synagogue and when the rabbi gives a dvar (like a Jewish sermon that interprets what happened in this week’s section of the Torah), I want that dvar to be focused on questions relating to morality, and the human condition (to borrow your words) more broadly. Then I want to be able to go home and make the connections between those morals and what policies they stand for on my own time. Our old rabbi in my synagogue at home always had to turn every dvar into preaching about his own politics (talking about Edward Snowden on Rosh haShana, for example), and I found it super frustrating. First of all, politics is not the only way to live out our morals, and when we make that jump over the morals themselves, we miss out on so many smaller scale, person-to-person and community-based ways that we can be better people by living out our religion. Secondly, I really don’t like the two party system, and I am very much in the center of the political spectrum, so I usually end up disagreeing with everyone I talk politics with, and when you get into those kind of political arguments, you come out feeling drained and alienated. That is not the kind of feeling I want to take with me when I leave a sacred space like a synagogue that is supposed to refresh me and inspire me and give me the strength to be a better person in the other areas of my life.

  5. Kally,
    I really enjoyed reading your post (again 😉 ) and I find that your first question about imposing religion versus making a decision based on morality is an extremely important question to think about! I think about that too, a lot. Whether it is the smaller setting of my home or as big as a country’s decisions influencing its people, religion is really integral in many people’s lives. For me, I think about my decision to keep my hair. Unshorn hair is an article of faith that was bestowed to the Sikhs ~200 years after the foundation of the faith by the tenth and final living Guru, Guru Gobind Singh Ji. Unlike the first Guru, Guru Nanak Dev Ji, Guru Gobind Singh Ji lived in a time of social unrest, religious intolerance, and impending political instability in Northern India. At the time, the Sikh community was scattered and there wasn’t anything that truly connected the entire population to one another. But Guru Gobind Singh Ji decided that reinitiating his Sikhs with the creation of Khalsa was going to allow him to unite the group, which he accomplished through giving the Sikhs the names Singh and Kaur and bestowed the Five K’s and giving a new significance to the turban. These articles of the Sikh faith are what is used to identify a Sikh from a crowd of millions. So, for me to keep my hair makes me feel connected to my faith. But there are Sikhs who cut their hair because of Western cultural norms and for those people, it has backlashed and led to them not being as wholeheartedly accepted by the Sikh community. So, for me, is it my religion or my morals to keep my hair? Western society has no particular reverence for hair except for aesthetic purposes. which are really influential in how we surround ourselves. Superficial but not something to deny. So in terms of deciding whether its religion or morality, I think it’s both and that learning to identify things like religious significance and moral significance are valuable.
    I have many split ends–they’re harmless but nonetheless undesirable. But if I cut my hair, who would I do it for? For myself or for others? And I think that’s a question worth raising. Who are you making the choice for? You or for others and if it’s for others is that okay for you to decide what they should believe in?
    Thanks for the interesting post!

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