Culture and Religion

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Separation of Church and State

Our Founding Fathers, notably Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, wrote about keeping religion and government separate. That separation remains an issue today. As our government evolves while adapting to its problems the issue must be recognized.

Our immediate future for America is looking bleak. Our transition from a republic (i.e., leaders of privilege and stature) to a democracy (i.e., any one can get elected, no matter their values, with efficient marketing) is running its course, with an executive branch unchecked by the legislative and judicial branches of government. Now each increases the power of the others, the opposite direction intended by our Founding Fathers, who envisioned the checks and balances in the Constitution could preserve a limited government. The Republican party now dominates all three major branches, with Congress giving a blank check to the executive branch, resulting in out of control spending. The responsibility for war has been ceded to the executive branch, with an imperialistic foreign policy, from the legislative branch that was thought to be more accountable to the electorate. This aggressive foreign policy has made us the scorn of the world, while contributing to the growth of terrorist elements. The nominees for judicial positions are often party hacks rather than jurists dedicated to the rule of law.

At some point in the future, these problems could unhinge the balance and an adjustment to our way of life will ensue, whether we are ready for it or not. Hopefully we will be able to adjust, especially since our renewed interest in nuclear weapons increases the threat of global annihilation. I do not intend to describe a collapse, revolution or just evolution in our government. I am more concerned with the forces involved in this transition.

What will shape our new/revised way of life?

There are two notable opposing forces in play - the religious right and the secular libertarians.

Supposedly the 2004 presidential elections were marked by the importance of moral values. The irony is that our political leaders appear to have none. We have recently invaded two countries (Afghanistan and Iraq) resulting in much loss of life and misery, including thousands of civilians killed, many more injured and with widespread destruction while we continue to condone Israel's brutal persecution of the Palestinians. At the same time, we have been torturing and killing many innocent people, with the implied approval of our political leaders, in a number of our military prisons, as well as through the use of facilities in other countries. Our country's social health continues to erode, with decreasing incomes and insufficient health insurance and resources for many, a failing public education system and increasing dangers of terrorism due to our antagonistic foreign policy (that feeds the anger and thoughts of revenge among our enemies).

With this void of moral leadership, a number of religious leaders are attempting to make their views part of the law and our way of life. For example, religious symbols like the Ten Commandments are portrayed as important to the judiciary and creationism is being pushed harder into our public schools. This religious influence persuaded Congress and President Bush to intervene in the personal tragedy of Terry Schiavo, even though most Americans felt her situation was primarily a personal conflict (parents vs husband) that had been pursued in the courts, with no need for the national government to get involved. With the increased influence of the religious right, political leaders consistently put up a pious facade to avoid a backlash from that part of the electorate. One could surmise that a politician must be a church goer to be elected in much of the country. On one hand that could be because a politician must reflect his/her constituency (in much of the country, a majority goes to church frequently or feels religion is important). However that implies that now, in our democracy, the religious majority is ready and willing to push its religious views on the minority. The rallying cry could become 'either you are with us or against us' for certain administration policies that are based on a particular religion's views (just as it became the slogan for our Crusade against Afghanistan and Iraq).

An emphasis on a religious view in an open discussion will be divisive and that is even worse when part of a national policy. A religion is a set of beliefs about a possible supernatural being and whether He/She/It interferes in normal human affairs. In most cases, each religion is based on interpretations and traditions that originated in ancient manuscripts. There can NEVER be one universal religion when each is based to a great extent on interpretation and conjecture. Therefore, with no solid foundation, there will ALWAYS be opposing religions, with different creeds and with varying popularity (typically the number of adherents will change based on the fortunes of the countries that host these religions). There are many sects of both Christianity and Islam even though both share common heroes like Abraham and each branch has its own 'holy' book. As one religious group attains a majority status and attempts to enforce its views, a cultural conflict ensues with the other groups resisting such a arrogant assault.

An important observation is significant. Religions are not critical to moral values. Religions are concerned with a supreme being (at least one) and an agreed upon set of interpretations about that supreme being, such as when or why He interferes in human affairs and whether mankind has to behave in certain ways to please Him. Within any religion, there will be found good and evil people. No religion is a guaranty of goodness - in the eyes of its God or of one's peers.

All civilizations around the world have an understanding of good moral values, regardless of the religions in place. For example, Jesus and Confucius lived at about the same time but far apart and both have had some of their teachings recorded. Whether Jesus was a presence of the Christian God on Earth or whether he was just a religious leader of the Jews, most should agree that part of his life included the teaching of values. The similarity in any teachings from so many sages about moral values, to be found either in any religion around the world at any time in human history or in the works of many secular philosophers (even dating all the way back to Aesop's fables), are the result of a common understanding of our human nature, as a social creature.

Religions are primarily concerned with defining the required beliefs about their supernatural being(s). Other aspects of human life, including eating habits and moral values, become a side issue. These arise only when the interpretations by the religion's elite have concluded that the supreme being has odd requirements to be followed, like certain food preparation techniques or specific rules for men's and women's clothing. Rules for moral behavior are NOT the main emphasis for any religion. Our moral values are rooted in our human nature and they are not based on any religion.

The opposing force to religion in our society is the very fabric of our culture - our human nature. On the basic interpersonal level, everyone recognizes the validity of the basic libertarian world view. Each person owns his/her own body and whatever he/she creates. Everyone can recognize these basic human values - that it is wrong to harm another person or what he owns. Two of the Ten Commandments mention these values but the values preceded the commandments, not the other way around. The recent Terry Schiavo case revealed how most Americans feel that the life or death decision is a personal one, not for the government to interfere with. Many Americans appreciate how important it is that the government must not constrict our basic civil rights, as can be seen by the revulsion to the PATRIOT act (though the intentional culture of fear is able to overcome its possible rejection by many).

As the national government begins to wilt under its own burden (increasing debt - requiring more taxes to cover it - overwhelming the ability of the populace to pay; increasing terrorist threats - requiring more restrictions on civil rights to prevent rebellion against the incompetent foreign policies that cause the terrorism; lower quality of life - as environmental restrictions are eased and many jobs get exported in exchange for lower cost goods) the two opposing forces will compete in any upcoming transitions (transformations?) of that government.

The religious forces will attempt to maintain their influence, having successfully linked with many political leaders, by emphasizing how the remaining government entities will, with their leadership like a shepherd and his sheep, continue to watch over and protect the people. The Schiavo case illustrates this well. Many of the Christian religions and sects are characterized by a leader that 'knows best' and that can lead the flock to salvation.

The secular forces can base their views on the solid libertarian understanding of human affairs. People can establish rules of conduct and they can enforce those rules without resorting to a religious basis or even requiring a large bureaucratic government. Our Founding Fathers had lived a few years under the loose Articles of Confederation but there seems to be an innate tendency of mankind to hope that the responsibility for justice can be delegated to someone else rather than everyone maintaining an active role in that process. Our democratic form of government has now blatantly revealed how the delegation of that power eventually results in a corrupt system of justice, where money buys both influence and escape from retribution while the rest of the populace are left with the burden of that privileged class.

The 2004 Presidential election, with its ubiquitous competition between red and blue states, made it apparent that our national image is being buffeted by these competing social forces and our national destiny might be determined to a great extent on how we, as a nation, arbitrate between them.

If the religious forces are able to dominate then a likely outcome is a more Christian than secular nation. There will be many that would respond - what is wrong with that? This nation was founded on the principles of separation of church and state, where the government does not endorse one religion, and on the principles of a republican government, where the majority will not suppress any minority. Our laws must be based on sound ethical principles (any one of a number of Murray Rothbard books is a good start), not on interpretations of ancient writings. Religions are for people to understand their place in the world and in their life. Religions are not to be used by people to oppress others with the backing of the government.

A Christian America is the derailment of our national destiny, as an example of a people that threw off its colonial shackles, formed a limited government that enforced our basic human rights and achieved national success (with a good quality of life for many; this is of course our mythical destiny!). Though our current generation of politicians usually act counter to both limited government and quality of life issues, I would expect most Americans still hold to these ideals.

A Christian nation is wrong for America because it represents so clearly a disintegration of our national image, land of the free and home of the brave. We will not be free when many are forced to submit to the religious doctrines of others. Our common images of bravery include the Revolutionary War, when our patriots fought for our national freedom from England, or World War II, when our soldiers fought to protect their country from foreign tyrants. How brave are the Christian soldiers, who fight against others based on our leaders' religious doctrines rather than on our common human values? If each fights for their God then their heart is not with their comrades, family, community or country. An act of bravery is always recognized by the selfless act of humanity not of a religious ideal.

created - April 2005
last change - 04/03/2005
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