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What’s After “Separation of Church and State”?

One of the principles enshrined by our founding fathers was to prevent government from being used to create privileged elites that were protected from the criticism of their peers. Voting is part of that process, and the Bill of Rights articulates a number of other protections of this kind. A popular one – though toothless, in this day and age – is the “right to bear arms” (which I’ll make a pun about in regards to Vladimir Putin in a couple of days). And honestly, I find a bullet to be a rather blunt form of argument. Another is separation of church and state enshrined in the “non-establishment” clause of the first amendment.

The first amendment has been interpreted fairly strictly in modern times. Court cases have found against Ten Commandments displays and prayers at the beginning of public meetings. Those subjected to such restrictions argue that they’re not trying to establish a religion – they’re just trying to practice theirs. However, when a faith heralds the arrival of a Messianic ruler, non-adherents have a right to be a little skeptical.

However, there’s a fundamental issue in governmental process that may be lost in these debates. It harkens back to George Bush Sr. with his “Thousand Points of Light” program, though that was much reviled. Governments categorize people in order to administer programs. Unfortunately, that categorization creates classes of privilege, and makes it difficult to respond to situations of individual need.

Private charity addresses these issues, and religious belief is one of the primary motivators of charitable giving. The Catholic Church rose to prominence in Rome not because of political maneuvering, but because it provided charitable services to those that the government considered disposable.

And of course we all know how power corrupts. Invoking faith may be seen as a means of reminding people of the source of their authority: compassionate service to the people of their community.

Simply quoting “separation of powers” or “separation of church and state” may not resonate with people with that believe that compassion should be front-and-center in every civic forum, and invoking Christ or Muhammad or Buddha is the best means they have. Conversely, secular approaches seem to lead to ever-larger systems of control that then become populated by people that have to bring in a trophy every now and then, which creates pressures that cause new forms of injustice.

I think that these are real problems of governance, and I would like to see the proponents of strict secularism address them in a meaningful way. This complexity of government and the depth of its involvement in our lives is not something that the founding fathers could have foreseen. We need new thinking on the matter.

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