One of the marvels of our constitutional system is the benign and mutually supportive nature of the relationship between Church and State, Religion and Politics. While Continental Secularism (born in France and labeled ‘Laicite’) has a more antagonistic relationship between the two, our own brand of separation is mutually supportive. Or at least traditionally so.
For there are some in our nation who have envisioned a more aggressive secularism which is built on a suspicion of religion and not an appreciation of it. Religion for these thinkers is the enemy of progress and science, of the betterment needed for human flourishing. Religion foments ignorance and ultimately violence.
Of course, facts and history itself beg to differ.
Some of the great scientists like Newton, Galileo, and Pascal were religious men whose study of science was a natural outgrowth of faith. Science was the study of God’s creation and it gave them a sense of wonder that was a spur to their imaginations. Einstein himself was intrigued by the doctrine of Transubstantiation. It set his scientific imagination on fire because he was a man of openness and not a bigot when it came to religion.
These more aggressive secularists also love to bandy about examples like the Crusades and the Inquisition as proofs of Religion’s intolerance. But the Crusades were at first an attempt to liberate Shrines that had been conquered by invading armies. And the Inquisition was the Church’s attempt to moderate the more violent secular arm. To kill, the state had to prove the existence of dangerous beliefs. The vast majority of those tried were proved innocent.
These new more intolerant secularists are not honest with the more destructive hatred born of atheism. The regimes of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao were anti-religious genocidal fomenters of the torture and deaths of millions. These secular anti-religious societies were guilty of more deaths in one century than all the unjust deaths stretching back to the beginnings of history. The concentration camps, the gulags, and cultural revolutions were born and bred in atheistic secular societies.
To make religion the bad guy of history is simply untrue, unhistorical and a perversion of reality.
Luckily, in this country, our tradition of cooperation between Church and State is held as sacred by the majority of our citizens. The Framers of our Constitution were not trying to just protect government from religious intrusion, but they were also trying to protect religion from the pressures of government. Most of our founders had a profound respect for the contributions of faith-filled citizens. Some of them even thought that the American Experiment would not work without mature citizens who had an ethical background, presumably from their religious affiliation.
Given the pervasive tension and sometimes outright hostility found in other national contexts, what has emerged in America is something unique and very valuable. Unfortunately, it is also very fragile. All Americans, religious and secular, should be very protective of this relationship between Church and State since it helps maintain a healthy working relationship between these two mega-realities. This is especially true when we consider the upcoming debates on abortion that are sure to spill over if the Supreme Court revisits the constitutionality of Roe v. Wade.
There is, unfortunately, always a tendency to win an argument by vilifying one’s opponent. People of faith must try to lead here by good example in seeing the good in our opponent’s argument and then to point out the apparent or not so apparent fallacy in their argumentation.
While our constitutional system is not one that is built on faith, it does presuppose that people of faith will help it to be true to its values that derive from faith but are not dependent on faith. As people of faith, our role in our democracy is to point out the importance of human virtue to people who may not be gifted in this way. The ways of truth are open to all, even those without faith. The advantages of our faith are that it gives us the overall vision to see where the earthly values we seek to nurture and expand are part of the overall revelation of God. And this must become apparent logically and rationally to those who do not see how the values of our country are grounded in the dignity of the human person as revealed by God when the Scriptures tell us that we are made in the image and likeness of God. The later truth is one of faith but the former can be assented to by people of different faiths or of no faith at all.
We, as people of faith, are essential to the governance of our society. It is the mystery of the interplay of Church and State and not of Church vs. State.