Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Church and State

There is an excellent article in The Nation by Brooke Allen which does a very good job of describing exactly how secular were the Founding Fathers and to what great lengths they and those who followed them went to erect and then support a clear and compelling separation of church and state. I recommend it to you. I recommend it even though there is something perilously wrong in it.

Yes, our nation, the United States of America, was founded in the full blush of the Enlightenment upon Enlightenment Principles, as Brooke Allen writes. The Enlightenment arrived in the New World after its earlier, more gradual appearance in Europe. But, Brooke, America's heritage is also what went before the Enlightenment, before the founding, before the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. America was founded by religious dissidents looking for a place to practice their beliefs unfettered by the principle of cuius regio eius religio (whomever rules the land shall determine the religion of the land), which was enunciated in the Peace of Augsburg, 1555, settling the hostilities between the Lutheran Protestants and the Roman Catholics in Germany.

It is extremely important to give due notice to the early colonial period, its religious extremism, the early and continuing dissidents, and the escape from the principle "cuius regio ..." that brought them there. Think about it. The puritans in Massachusetts, the Anglicans dotted throughout, the Catholics in Maryland, then the Quakers, Lutherans, Calvinists, Wesleyans, Jews, etc., all came to be rid of a ruler telling them what to think in their private spiritual lives!

And, Brooke, it is necessary to add that the Enlightenment was in part a reaction from the oppressive hand of the Roman See over intellectual matters, but it did not take place in a spiritual vacuum. Although many leading minds of the Enlightenment were agnostic or even more firmly resolved in their reaction, many, indeed most, maintained contact with their religions, various forms of Judaism and various forms of Christianity. It is a mistake to see the Enlightenment and America's participation in it as a broad negation of the spiritual element of life. It is, however, a watershed, an object lesson in public life. Where Enlightenment principles took root and formed the basis of government, religion was separated from the doctrines of government and set aside for that private part of life—the spiritual side.

In either case, escaping the doctrine of "cuius regio ..." or implementing "separation of church and state" the American experience is notably and assiduously a separation of the public and the private. About that, Brooke and I agree completely.

So while we are talking about such things wouldn't it be good then, for modern politicians to express themselves less spiritually and privately in public. The parting shot ("... and may God bless the United States of America") virtually all politicians give to their speeches these days is unbecoming our heritage, our separation of church and state, and our more mature beliefs that deity would hardly heed such brazen calls to favoritism.

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