August 9, 2002

Keep church and state separate

On many issues, I infuriate my liberal friends, some of whom live in co-ops or communes. I believe Israel ought to continue doing what it's doing, perhaps a little more. I do not think bisexuality makes a person inherently interesting. I eat red meat without any sense of guilt. However, I am infuriated in turn by the conservative view that the Christian (or, for some slightly more open-minded conservatives, Judeo-Christian) God deserves a place in this country's public institutions. If this God ever materializes and gets Himself elected into Congress, finds Himself on a city council, or becomes a public school teacher, so be it. But until then, God, like putting on anti-acne cream or anything involving the full removal of underwear, is, for those who work or attend school at a public institution, for one's own time only.

John Derbyshire's August 6th article in National Review Online, "March of the Godless," does a good job of letting us know that, despite all odds, the author is a God-fearing Christian.

Derbyshire informs us that humans are instinctually religious and that "before big policy decisions are made [in the United States], we want to hear them argued from a point of view that believes there is more to morality than mere expedience, more to human life than the slaking of brute appetites, and more things in the universe than cold stones and spiritless lumps of flesh." A reasonable statement, or at least a respectable opinion, right? Well, no. Big policy decisions in this country must be made by people who, whatever their faith or lack thereof, are able to put aside thoughts of spirits living in humans (or spirits living in stones, for that matter) and make their decisions based on morality and law. While for some people morality certainly does stem from religion, any aspect of a person's morality that is uniquely religious must somehow be checked before any policy decisions, large or small, are based upon it.

Derbyshire prefers his fellow believers to all others. A fine explanation for organized religion's popularity, but not a good political argument in a country grounded in the separation of church and state. Discussing school prayer, Derbyshire writes, "Here in the States there is a continuous national debate on this topic, breaking out into heated argument every year or two, whenever some punctilious atheist parent decides to make a nuisance of himself." There is no such thing as being too precise or aggressive when it comes to protecting people from state-imposed religion. America has no national religion, thus its public schools must have no official, in-class prayer. In classifying the world into the God-fearing and godless, Derbyshire forgets his own point — that religion's innateness can be proven by the fact that it is "found in all times and places." The deity whose name is on our currency and whose best-selling novel is sworn upon in our courts is not the all-encompassing sum of anyone and anything ever worshipped.

Derbyshire adds, in a moment of hmm-like profundity: "Outside the sphere of religion, it is difficult for most of us to get a firm grip on the big questions, the questions that have agitated mortals since Achilles moped in his tent before Troy: 'How shall we live?' and 'Why must we die?' These matters, dealing with the foundations of morality and the place of human life in the grand scheme of things, color political issues and so are constantly discussed and debated."

If America were truly founded on the belief that we need religion to act as moral beings, then we would have a national religion visible to everyone, not just to those conservatives (and in times past, liberals) who see a Church of America where they want to see one. Derbyshire evidently sees religion as a Cliffs' Notes to the "big questions," recalling the Absolutely Fabulous episode in which uptight and prim Saffy tells Edina, her fad-obsessed mother, that she is describing Buddhism, her latest undertaking, as if it were "a cosmic cash-machine." This is after Edina has promised to "chant" for various material goods. Let Derbyshire chant for policy decisions to go in ways favorable to him. Just as long as he understands that chanting and prayer of any kind have no place in our public institutions.