Chapter Summary #3: THE SEPARATION OF CHURCH & STATE (Pgs.91-117)


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In this chapter Beckwith tackles what the Bill of Rights says as to how state and religion are to relate, what their boundaries are and specifically the interpretation of the “establishment clause” and the “free-exercise clause”.  It’s here where the battle rages for all advocates.

The establishment clause from the First Amendment states that: “Congress may not employ legislative power to establish an official national religion”.  Thus, for example, Congress (not any other branch of government) can’t legally put into law that citizens become a Muslim and financially support its local place of worship.  The free-exercise clause asserts that the Constitution protects the religious liberty of citizens from any legislative act of Congress.  Thus, laws should be set-up to protect a citizen’s right to worship as they deem fit, without the interference of the State (or so it seems to me).

As a form of legal shorthand, Beckwith notes that the phrase “separation of church and state” is now employed to describe the religious clauses of the First Amendment.  However, ambiguity is an infamous problem with the phrases, “free-exercise”, “establishment”, and “religion”.  It’s this lack of clarity that causes so many interpretations, nevertheless, as the author notes:

The notion of “separation of church and state” exists as a largely unquestioned dogma in American political and legal discourse, even though the phrase does not appear in the text of the Constitution and a plain reading of the religion clauses is just as consistent with some forms of moderate separationism as it is with strong separationism. [pg.93]

 Beckwith goes on to explain the similarities and differences between moderate and strong separationists.  Both affirm that government religious liberty should be maximized for the public good and that neither government nor ecclesiastical powers should attempt to control the other’s sphere of duties.  Yet there are disagreements.

On the one hand, moderates don’t attempt to exclude religion from public life, thus supporting public funding programs of similarly situated religious and secular entities.  On the other hand, strong separationists forbid any aid to religion even when similarly situated secular entities are given aid.  These also exclude any political input from a religiously based worldview from its citizens (i.e., if the view is informed from a sacred book, it is de-facto unacceptable).

Beckwith asks if there’s any place where government and religious institutions can cooperate together (e.g., school vouchers for private religious schools).  Important to point out is that there’s no definition of religious or religion that can be pointed towards which both exposes the ambiguity that obtains in people’s minds and also hides the myth the state comes from a neutral, non-religious position.

Beckwith further reflects on the interaction between the Danbury Baptists and Jefferson in order to clue in on the “slogan’s” original intent [pgs.95-98] and explains that the letter, far from being in the US Constitution, was routine presidential correspondence that strong separationists hi-jacked (my view) and gave it the status of “holy writ”.  Unfortunately, the strong separationist movement of the time won the day on a false epistemological  view that religious principles are not based on reason or logic and thus have no place in the making of public policy [pgs.98-107].

Beckwith then contemplates the limits of religious freedom and the exercise thereof which at the end of the day anyone can relativize according to what I’ve seen.  According to Beckwith, the application of the establishment clause has not only been misapplied, it has also muddied the understanding of what the Separation between the Church and State mean.

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