The argument about the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and the “separation of church and state” sparked by the Coons-O’Donnell debate has stuck with me, and I had a few more thoughts on the matter that I wanted to articulate here.
As a Medievalist, I studied the complex and often disastrous interactions between secular government and the Catholic Church. The historical context of those conflicts makes quite clear the danger inherent in mixing religion and government. The Founding Fathers of the United States were clearly aware of the struggles that occurred throughout Europe on this particular issue, especially given that the initial impetus for many of the settlers of the American Colonies was a desire to freely practice their religion away from governmental interference.
In an attempt to defend Christine O’Donnell and her interpretation of the First Amendment, the Religious Right and their Tea Party allies have demonstrated precisely why the “separation of church and state” is such an important principle. Keep in mind that I write these words as a political independent who has equal disdain for both parties, but on this issue, the Left is correct, and it is disheartening to me that there are actually people who believe that we should be teaching religion in place of science in public schools. I believe in freedom of religion, but my belief in freedom of religion dictates that I have no business evangelizing to others about what they should believe. This is precisely why the separation of church and state is so important in the first place. It is a protection for everyone, not just government.
Religion is about belief, and when people believe in that which is not tangible and accept it as right, they become dogmatic. Dogma is antithetical to reasoned discussion and debate, and I fear for the future of this country if people truly don’t understand the danger of inviting religion into the execution of governmental functions. One would think that the historical record and the existence of countries like Iran – or Afghanistan under the Taliban – would be enough to show these people the fundamental necessity of Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between church and state. They don’t get it because they chose to place their faith in a belief system and operate from the premise that they know the truth and can’t possibly be wrong. They assume that they can show everyone else the way, but that thought process is the path of tyranny and the long road to sectarian violence and demonizing of the other for daring to follow the “wrong path.” If it is appropriate to teach “Intelligent Design” (read Creationism) in public schools, then must we also teach the Hindu creation myth in order to demonstrate that we are not favoring the establishment of one religion over another as prescribed by the First Amendment of the Constitution? Would I be correct in insisting under these free-for-all rules that children learn about Odin and Yggdrasil as though Norse mythology offers the truth about how people ended up on this planet?
O’Donnell and her ilk know not what they ask because they can’t see beyond their own “truth.” Then again, they never bothered to question it to begin with, and that might be the saddest part of all. Did God give us the capacity for reason only so that we might abandon it in favor of dogma?
James Madison and Thomas Jefferson are probably rolling over in their graves right now.