The subject of the separation of church and state has been much discussed lately. This issue is even said to have figured into the decision by the Texas State Board of Education to exclude Thomas Jefferson from
Some, if not most, of us were raised to believe that the principle of the separation of church and state was an essential element of a democratic government. The basic idea was that a church supported by the government suppressed the free exercise of religious freedom and led to worse usurpations.
In the more recent past, this principle of separation has been the means by which various secular groups have challenged the cultural bias toward Christianity whenever it manifests itself in a public setting with governmental funding or sponsorship. These challenges have always raised the ire of the traditionalists, who are quick to cite the many instances where our founding fathers invoked the name of God in their deliberations and writings.
The whole issue is fraught with great irony. Almost everyone is aware that many of the earliest colonists came here to this new country to escape religious persecutions in European countries where there was not the slightest pretense of separation between church and state. In
The founding fathers, being educated men for the most part, were obviously aware of this national history, and the very first amendment to the constitution stated that Congress could make no law respecting an establishment of religion or the free exercise thereof. Of course, like many aspects of our fundamental documents, the exact meaning of these words is the subject of heated debate.
Regardless of the original intent of the writers, one can readily see in our national history from the earliest days until the present that we, as a nation, have never been far removed from the European example in which church and state were continuous allies in ruling over the general population. The church has always been the loudest proponents of virtues like respect for authority, obedience to the law, active opposition to evildoer, and patriotism. All of these principles, when embraced, serve the purpose of government immensely. Mandated respect, obedience, and subservience are the very characteristics which a government would most admire in the governed.
Meanwhile, our governments have always granted special privilege to the churches. Given enough prominence religious leaders have always been given special access to the chambers of government, advising presidents and cajoling legislatures. Churches have historically enjoyed a special status which allows them to collect vast sums of tax free money, often from those who are the most vulnerable to manipulation.
So, as much as some of us would like to believe that the separation of church and state is a mandated fact, our history proves it to be a lie, just as some religious conservatives suggest. The church and the state are both in the same business, that of controlling and restraining, and that makes them natural allies. If this is ever to change, a large number of us would have to reject both institutions in favor of something radically different. Real freedom, if that is our national desire, cannot be fostered by government or religion as usual.