On the eve of a presidential election, I have been encouraged that the subject of religion has become vocal, but related thoughts continue to leave me disturbed.
For years, the 'religious right' has been derided for its explicit religious ideology. The attitude was "How dare you!' The message was "Shut up!" The grand principle, under which such attitudes and messages were made, was "the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state." A grudging tolerance has come with vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman's outspokenness on religion: "We have practically banished religious values and religious institutions from the public square and constructed a 'discomfort zone.' For even discussing our faith in public settings--ironically making religion one of the few remaining socially acceptable targets of intolerance."
Our country has benefited from not having religion as a primary element in the ordering of our political life. Yet, to rigidly exclude religious motivation from the political sphere and to deride those who seek political action on the basis of their religious beliefs has created a new dogmatism based on a false premise. After all, the phrase "the separation of church and state" is not in the Constitution. It comes from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote when he was president. The first Amendment prohibits Congress from establishing a religion, but it does not restrict citizens, acting on their religious principles, to seek to affect government.
That our ruling elite promotes such a view is understandable: those in power want to limit any political forces they cannot manage. Chinese leaders know that, so they attempt to stamp out the Falun Gong (in actions highly reminiscent of Rome and the early Christians)--tens of thousands have been arrested and dozens have been killed while in prison.
One would think that such a government response would not be tolerated in this country, yet it has. Our government's demonizing of the Branch Davidians (government agents called them religious kooks and derided David Koresh's claim to be a messiah [even though having a messiah complex does not violate any federal or state law]) justified the assault on the compound and the resulting deaths of 80, including close to 30 children.
In addition to the use of the controlling ideology of 'the separation of church and state,' our government has domesticated religion through the tax code. To remain a tax-exempt religious organization, restrictions are placed on political involvement. Crossing the line means that contribution made to an organization could no longer be deducted.
Throughout the history of our country, people of religious conviction
and religious organizations have helped shape our life, sometimes for ill
but mostly for good--Martin Luther King, Jr., and the churches involvement
in the civil rights being the most recent. That it is now easier for religion
to be part of the political process is, to my mind, all to the good. For
religious groups, though, to take the next step to maintain their integrity
and independence of government is not on the horizon. We are, in the old
words, "too comfortable in Zion."
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