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Our Founding Fathers were wise in many ways, but none of their foundation stones has proven more inspired and essential to our democracy than their dictum regarding the separation of Church and State.
A brief history: Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Danbury Baptists, a then-minority religion fearing the dominance of the Congregationalists in their state, wrote that “the legitimate powers of government…contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their ‘legislature’ should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State.” Mr. Jefferson’s metaphor echoed Roger William’s earlier use of the image of a wall “between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”
Centuries later the image still describes the separation, while compromising freedom in no way.
Together with freedom of speech, the principle of separation of Church and State keeps democracy honest (more often than not). The wall is important – but it should not be so high it denies the existence of each to the other. Religion, when healthy, should be as personal as one’s toothbrush. It is an intimate part of one’s make-up and character, defining a relationship between self and God.
Politics, on the other hand, is about all of us and a shared dependency on human justice and law. Character, in politics, should be defined more by a person’s history (track record) than belief, even though one’s belief helps to shape that history, belief being defined here by one’s spiritual (ethical) values, not religious affiliation.
In countries where one’s religion is one’s politics, there can be a kind of righteousness that is blind to and intolerant of differences, thus compromising true freedom.
But even in a democracy, history has at times shown that one’s politics and/or beliefs can offer a dangerous hiding place for hidden agendas. That is why one’s character should be the focus of anyone evaluating a candidate for public office.
Religion, it seems, has been an unfortunate and unnecessary noise in the current presidential debates, caucuses and primaries. Race, too, for that matter. And gender as well.
Nine months hence, Americans will cast their votes for our next president. There remains time enough for one’s vote to be a choice rather than a response to bias or prejudice or an irresponsibility to be informed.
As mentioned above, ours is a nation dependent upon human justice and laws. It is also dependent upon human beings.
In these times, especially, that nation deserves and needs the best among us.