Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Government and Religion

Recently on the discussion board of one of my classes, I read this comment by a student: "the U.S. was founded on the basis of believing in God." Here is my initial response to this claim.

A short history lesson is in order. The Constitution does not make a single reference to God, and this was intentional. The framers began the Constitution by writing, "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." This way of beginning was in sharp contrast with the traditional way of writing constitutions in Europe where the first line would invoke God's name and the whole endeavor of forming a government would have been said to reflect God's will. Instead, the framers intentionally excluded such theological language from the process and attributed the power to decide such matters to "we the people." There have been numerous attempts over the years to add theological language to this "godless document," but those have always failed because of the democratic principle that we the people--not God--ordain and establish our government. (Of course, this principle did not stop changes from being made to our Pledge of Allegiance or our dollar bills, but those entities did not have the same solemn protection from a meddlesome public that the Constitution earns in our estimation.)

The point is that government and religion need to be separate. Why? Because the framers of the constitution feared tyranny. If those who have the power of the sword can also invoke God's will as justification for the use of the sword, then there will be no way to prevent tyranny. We would in effect have a king chosen by divine right. All of this had happened again and again in Europe, and the framers were afraid it could happen here too if they did not prevent it. So they made sure that the government which has the power of the sword was not permitted to invoke religious authority as justification for its decisions.

All of this is not to say that religion was intended to be eliminated from society or even politics. It was fully expected by the framers that religion would play an important role in the lives of citizens and would help to make the country good (a point that could be disputed, of course). In fact, they assumed that religion would prevent the society from becoming a war of all against all--a backbiting, brutish competition without moral regulation. Indeed, they assumed that religion, by encouraging people to sacrifice their personal interests in service of the common good, would provide some controls and balance where today's "free market ideology" would have none (but that's a story for another day). So, to the framers, religion was important for society, but not for government.

From studying the Hebrew prophets, we see that religion functions in the way the framers envisioned only when religious leaders are willing and able to stand up to the power of the state and criticize it. The prophets were the critics of government. (Think about Isaiah censuring King Ahaz for seeking aid from the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III and then dutifully introducing Assyrian religious objects into the Temple as recompense; or Isaiah's later admonitions against such unholy alliances during Hezekiah's reign.) Religion becomes dangerous when it becomes too closely aligned with the power of the sword because its motives to serve the world can get mixed with selfish power-hungry motives. We see this happening over and over in world history. Thus, the framers would have recommended 1. separation of government and religion, and 2. prophetic religion that speaks truth to power. They did not want an empire religion such as Constantinian Christianity in which religion became the justification for anything the power-seeking officials of the empire wanted. That would just be tyranny. Not only is this situation an obvious threat to democracy, it also threatens the independence of the church. In Constantine's empire, the church became just another arm of the state, a mere instrument of the emperor like the department of defense or the treasury. Thus, the separation of the church from the state and the maintenance of the prophetic form of the church serve both democracy and the church.


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