Saturday, April 30, 2016

Quickies: Politics And Faith

     The supposed “wall of separation” between religion and government of which Thomas Jefferson wrote is about as badly understood as the epicycles of Ptolemy. It occurred to me a little earlier that it deserves a few words of explanation...and believe it or not, a few words are all it needs.

     The Constitutional aspects repose in two brief passages:

  1. Article VI, Section 3: The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
  2. Amendment I: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

     There are no other mentions of religion, faith, or anything associated with them in the Constitution. But it’s the substantive aspects of American governance, rather than the clauses above, that have occasioned the Sturm und Drang.

     Consider a topic more intimately associated with religious beliefs than nearly any other: abortion. Just now, it’s legal in all American jurisdictions, essentially without regulation or restrictions. Many of those who oppose this do so on the basis of their religious faiths, which abortion’s supporters condemn as an attempt to breach the “separation of church and state.” In truth, it’s nothing of the sort...but if the United States were a different sort of polity, perhaps an absolute hereditary monarchy, the story might be different.

     Were Congress to approve any of the suggested “human life” amendments restricting or completely banning abortion, and were the legislatures of thirty-seven or more states to ratify it, some or all abortions would no longer be legal – not for any religious reason, but because a wholly secular process had amended the Constitution. As the legislators in Congress and the state legislatures didn’t need to face a “religious test,” there would be no case for claiming that the “wall of separation” had been breached.

     Now imagine that the president had seized the unbounded and unreviewable powers of an absolute monarch. Were such a president to decree that abortion shall henceforth be equivalent to murder, there would be questions about his motives for doing so. Were he to state explicitly that it was “God’s will” that it be so, that would be a plain and open insertion of a religious faith – i.e., that of the President – into American governance. Indeed, all an absolute autocrat’s decrees could be questioned on that basis, for the “legislative process” would be confined to the inside of his skull. Were we to permit such an autocracy, we would have no recourse except assassination.

     The Constitution isn’t perfect; nothing human is. But by defining a secular legislative process rich with provisions for correction and revision, it escapes the sort of Deus vult “legislation” which the subjects of a theocracy must endure. In this and only this lies the “separation of church and state” – a genuinely valuable aspect of our polity, as the wretched ones of many an Islamic hellhole would tell you, if they could.

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