Second Thoughts About Church and State?
The separation of church and state is one of my primary areas of interest, as readers of this blog will know. I have therefore programmed my internet browser to provide me with alerts when items appear on-line that concern this issue. Frequently, these alerts bring me to letters to the editor (run on-line by various news outlets) that claim that the United States doesn’t or shouldn’t separate church and state. Invariably, such letters repeat the now shopworn meme “Separation of Church and State Isn’t In the Constitution”. This is patently untrue, as a clear reading of the Constitution (augmented by writings of the Constitution’s framers) shows that the separation of church and state (SOC&S) was indeed intended as a founding principle of our country. I’ve dealt specifically with this issue in some previous posts (see e.g. “Separation of Church and State Isn’t In the Constitution, Or So They Say”) and so will not do so again in this essay. But a recent news story that caught my eye has me wondering if all those who decry the SOC&S might now have reason to rethink their position regarding this essential American concept.
On November 12 Stephen Wolf reported in the Daily Kos that Hamtramck Michigan, a municipality of 22,000, just elected the nation’s first Muslim-majority city council. So what do those who deny the SOC&S (almost always Christian) in letters to their local newspapers have to say now? Do they now think that maybe it would be a good idea to separate church and state in Hamtramck? Do they suddenly see the value of this doctrine? I suppose they might. If the Hamtramck City Council now passed laws (this is purely hypothetical; I have no reason to believe that they are considering such laws in any way) requiring Muslim prayers in the schools, or the posting of Muslim symbols in all government buildings, would they be okay with it because, after all, as their meme goes, “Separation of Church and State is Not in the Constitution”? Somehow, I expect not.
As usual, we can look for guidance here to the great draftsman of the Constitution, James Madison. In his “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785), Madison argued: “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects? That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of only one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?” Do you hear that, SOC&S deniers? It is the sound of a warning from over 200 years ago that your particular religion might not always be the one in power in your little corner of the world, and so if you don’t separate church and state you may find some day that another religion is ascendant and is imposing its beliefs on YOU. But by then, it will be too late to do anything about it. And so I invite Americans who deny and/or rail against the separation of church and state to re-think their position on this vital issue, if only for their enlightened future self-interest. And I suggest they do so before it is too late, for themselves and for us all.