Church and State

Here we are in the midst of another legislative session, with reasonable and nonsensical proposed laws vying with one another for our elected representatives’ attention. In reviewing columns written during past legislative sessions, I reread one with this same title from three years ago. It is more appropriate now than it was then, and drew from a column in the Atlanta paper entitled “Let’s affirm secular governance” by Lucas Carpenter. Dr. Carpenter is a professor of English at Emory University. To say his article was well written is an understatement.

Like South Carolina, Georgia has for several years been considering a “religious liberty” bill to prevent religious citizens from being compelled to do anything that conflicts with their beliefs. In South Carolina, for example, there have been bills proposed that would explicitly allow an employee of a Probate judge to refuse to participate in filing papers regarding same sex marriages, notwithstanding Supreme Court rulings on the subject. This, it is argued, is part of our heritage of religious liberty. But what is that heritage, really?

The United States Constitution refers to  religion in only two places: in Article VI, forbidding the use of any kind of religious requirement or test for candidates for office; and in the First Amendment, guaranteeing the individual right to practice a religion and prohibiting the government from giving preference to any one religion over any other. The author of the Declaration of Independence, it was Thomas Jefferson who first referred to the “wall of separation that exists between church and state” in a letter he wrote as President in 1802. Together, those ideas frame the American belief that our country is a secular country bound to no specific religion – not a Christian country, not even a Judeo-Christian country, but a nation under which religion is strictly a private, non-governmental matter of conscience. Our foundational documents rest on the Jeffersonian premise that science and reason, not religious belief, should underlie all of our public decision making.

By extension, that premise underpins not only our legislatures and courts but also our public education at all levels. We should not teach religion in our public institutions, but rather we should teach about religion, starting with the cultural milieu which gave rise to religions around the world. How did religions first develop among ancient peoples? What ethical and moral values were held in common, and how did they differ? How did those values evolve from ancient times to early Christianity, through the advent of Islam in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Reformation in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, and the Great Awakening in early nineteenth century America? Various religions and their American followers should be introduced, including non-religious people such as agnostics and atheists, to help our young people better to understand the nation and world in which they live. Which belief systems are right and which are wrong should be left for the students to decide under the guidance of parents and churches – but not in school. Schools should teach about science, about reasoning, and about all religions. Churches and homes should teach about “our” religion.

Professor Carpenter, like most educators, argues most strongly for critical thinking and evidenced-based belief. What is stated in the Bible or in the Qur’an should be part of our history and part of the cultural background of the modern world, but should not be regarded as evidence in the same way that science and reason are regarded. Physics, Medicine, and Computer Science – those “STEM” skills so needed in our society today – must be developed by students who learned early on about the primacy of science and of reasoning.

We in South Carolina, indeed throughout the United State, are rightfully proud of our cultural heritage whose diversity strengthens and enlightens us all. Our future and that of our government must lie in building on that heritage, and in particular on the science and reason that are truly the most American of ideas.

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