February 5, 2009

Strengthening the Separation of Church and State

Constantine's Conversion, depicting the conver...Image via WikipediaIt is time once again to revisit the platform on which I have been working gradually. In addition to (1) ending anti-atheist bigotry and (2) promoting reason and critical thinking, I am now ready to add the third plank: strengthening the separation of church and state. Although I suspect most readers of this blog will agree that this is an important goal, I also expect that some of you may disagree sharply with at least one aspect of what I will say below.

An American Tradition

Students of history know that the U.S. was founded as a secular democracy and that the importance of church-state separation was recognized by our founders. That is not to say that the decision to eschew a national religion was without controversy. And yet, is was no accident that the U.S. Constitution omitted any mention of gods.

That we have no national religion should be a source of pride. This is one of the central factors which distinguishes the U.S. from other Western democracies. The separation of church and state remains an important part of our national heritage.

Keeping Religion Out of Government

Separation of church and state means that the government is not allowed to establish a state religion. Moreover, it has typically been interpreted as prohibiting the government from elevating the status of one religion over others (or even religion itself over no religion).

When atheists receive public attention, it is most often for our efforts to have religious symbols removed from government property. Religious believers often view this as trivial meddling with tradition, but it is about protecting the Constitution and defending our American heritage.

The nativity scene in the public library or the Ten Commandments in the courthouse are problematic not because we want to abolish religion but because these are government buildings which are not supposed to show preference to any one religion. Either all sets of beliefs are represented or none are.

Keeping Government Out of Religion

What atheists do not spend nearly enough time talking about is the importance of keeping government out of religion as well. If we are serious about preserving the separation of church and state, we must educate religious believers about the perils of merging the two with regard to the harm sustained by religion.

It is for this reason that I think many of my colleagues in the atheist blogosphere might be mistaken to call for churches to be taxed. I understand that this would cause many churches to go out of business, and I agree that this would be a positive outcome. However, taxing churches would remove any prohibition on their politicking. As long as we refuse to organize ourselves to provide an effective counter to what they do, I think we better tread carefully here.

What Can We Do?

I suspect we could come up with a hundred ideas for preserving the separation of church and state fairly easily. Here are just a few:

  • Join a national organization dedicated to promoting church-state separation, such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation or Americans United for Separation of Church and State. For some of the bigger cases, attorneys and lobbyists are necessary. These groups need our support.
  • Get involved at the local level. When you encounter violations of church-state separation in your community, act. Ask questions, complain, write a letter to the editor, contact your elected officials, alert your fellow bloggers, etc. Our inaction often serves as implicit agreement that the violation is not important.
  • Educate yourself and others about church-state issues.
  • Connect with other church-state activists in your community.