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?