Separation of Church and State

Read Freedom of Religion, Just Not Here for some additional thoughts on this subject.

Some have taken a fight against legal acknowledgement of homosexual unions as a means to push their religious beliefs. But Adventists should not seek to push our religion in the government. Some time ago reading arguments regarding Prop 8 I saw one saying it was not mixing government and religion because they gave no religious reasoning for the law. But around the same time I heard the same arguments being applied to Sunday laws. They were not establishing Sunday as a religious day, but a time for families, a time to escape the hustle and bustle of our world. This should give Adventists pause.

Just as America did at its founding, Adventism holds the idea that government should not impose religion in high regard. This is not something we should abandon, to move towards compulsory religion over compelling religion, just because there’s the opportunity to enforce ideas we like.

Laws Free of Religion

I found a very interesting response to one article regarding homosexual marriage and church backed laws. The response followed the argument out of not having a religiously motivated laws. It pointed to history; how marriage, as a governmental institution, had been in place in both religious and areligious societies as a means of encouraging procreation. If we are to keep religion out of government, this is a perfectly reasonable argument in the debate over whether same sex marriages or unions should be legally recognized. If the purpose is procreation then only those marriages capable of producing offspring should be recognized.

Though on the flip side if government recognized unions were to be about caring for children, even through adoption, then homosexual marriage we also be valid from an areligious viewpoint. This would also mean childless marriages would not be recognized, and perhaps that single mothers should be recognized in some similar fashion.

If we are to keep religious reasoning out of the law then we should either be debating it on grounds like these or saying government should not recognize marriages at all. Such unions are between the couple, God, friends, or family. Just the recognition of the marriage institution could end up showing some religious preference. Perhaps this is best as either of the above two arguments, though separate from religious reasoning, could be favorable to a religious viewpoint, just like Prop 8 or Sunday laws could be.

Subtlety in Church/State Interactions

Another issue along these lines is the recent issue over Catholic groups being forced to provide contraceptives. Clearly this is something that goes against their religious teachings. And I have to admit I was surprised to find such silence on the issue from religious liberty groups, especially among my own church. Even though we have vast theological differences from Catholics, we should still stand for religious liberty regardless of whose liberty.

Very recently I found an article that gave me better perspective on why there was silence. The only reason the government had any say in what the Catholics did was because the Catholics were accepting government funding. They had crossed a tricky line where as a church organization they were now beholden to the government. If they wanted to get out of this obligation they could just stop receiving funding.

The author made a good point, that if you don’t want government meddling in your church, then let your church stand apart from any government support. But again this is tricky, as funding could end up being tied to obligations that are discriminatory to some religions. Contraceptives are viewed much more favorably in most protestant faiths, and so other churches could continue to receive the funding while the Catholics are placed at a financial disadvantage.

Where to Draw the Line?

The question for me is, when do I need to jump into the political process? What laws should I push for? And what laws should I stand against because of religious imposition, just as I would a Sunday law? It is difficult to say. Even the idea of rejecting state imposed religion is based on my religious principles, understanding how God allowed Adam and Eve to follow him or disobey.

I think for any person with a strong relationship with God it will be difficult to disentangle their religious principles from societal principles. Should I oppose welfare because it imposes Christ’s calling to feed the hungry on everyone through state taxes? Shouldn’t citizens have as much freedom to say who their money goes to as they do what day they worship on or whom they marry?

An Unbiased Government, Not Agnostic

In fact, regarding our founders, they were not opposed to the idea of religiously influenced laws, but rather government sponsored religion. This is why the Declaration of Independence talks about men’s rights “endowed by their Creator.” This is why Washington in his farewell address cautioned that “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” This is why the first amendment forbids laws either establishing religions or preventing their exercise rather than forbidding religious thought from influencing laws. Though with increased diversity in religious thought it becomes more difficult to walk the line of allowing religious influence while preventing religious bigotry in government.

Whatever laws we choose there will be some philosophical motivation that takes some stance toward religion, whether favorable or antagonistic to one, or antagonistic to all. Though rarely explicitly stated, I find many seem to think that if we went with atheistic or materialistic reasonings we would be free of religious prejudice. But in reality it would institute severe religious prejudice, and in fact many have lost their jobs for their personal religious beliefs because of such prejudice (you can watch Expelled for a somewhat heavy-handed cataloguing of many of these in education).

Further, from a materialistic philosophy, there would be no basis for many of the laws everyone values. I find that there would be no basis for any laws as materialism cannot speak to morality, and would at best, have to defer to popularity. But that can be just as oppressive as one church dictating the laws. We can’t actually exorcise belief based biases from the law, but should choose what biases we allow and ensure they are guided by a principle of not imposing beliefs on others.

What’s troubling is there is a tendency is towards the principle of “Do what you want as long as you don’t harm anyone else.” But this is also a central tenant of a religion: Satanism. Should it be good enough to say government is just there to keep us from hurting each other, but you’re on your own when it comes to helping each other? Though I don’t know if this would play out as government rests somewhat on the idea that we are working together for everyone’s betterment. And the idea of “do what you want but do no harm” is a false dichotomy as you can’t do whatever you want and expect it not to have some effect on others. Just try driving through a red light.

Where Does This Leave Me

I haven’t yet sorted out my opinions on this on how it plays into specific laws. I do need to recognize that because I am religious I will be influenced by religious thinking when it comes to laws I support. Thus I should be careful not to think I’ve dodged religious imposition by creating an areligious argument for my stance. The laws I support should only govern how individuals interact with those around them, but not dictate a relationship with God, for which God himself allowed liberty to pursue or neglect. But I should stand strongly to protect other people’s religious freedoms and let it be known that I do these not in contradiction to, but because of my faith. And I should give others the opportunity to enjoy the blessings I have by my faith through friendship and encouragement, not compulsion.


3 Responses to “Separation of Church and State”

  1. 1 Isaac
    October 22, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    I totally agree dude. I had always thought that as Adventists, we were ingrained with reverane for the separation of church and state. When the proposition 8 talk was at its height I was shocked and saddened to hear so many of my Adventist friends speak so passionately that gay marriage shouldn’t be allowed. I don’t know how this happened, but I was taught at a young age that the separation of church and state is the reason we are allowed to worship how we choose. I don’t know what education these friends missed. Simply put, my liberty depends entirely on your freedom to do something I might find objectionable. Just imagine if we found ourselves on the other side of public opinion at some point, where people were afraid of us for some reason, and the government had a history of ruling on religion. It’s a scary proposition, much scarier than 8. [High five myself for a joke!]


  2. November 22, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    Well said. I agree with your conclusion and that these issues can be very sticky indeed. Allowing people to make free choices, and encouraging decisions through such choices and no coercion and threat of force are the biggest things I believe Adventists must support in laws.

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