Nothing attests more clearly to the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson than his statement in a letter dated Jan. 1, 1802, to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut: “Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people, and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the ‘wall of separation between church and state,’ therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.”
Much earlier, in 1644, Roger Williams had written more graphically of a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”
One need not be a theologian or political scientist to recognize the differences in power between religious and secular institutions. So one is left to wonder, “What is it in this statement that the powers in the Middle East cannot hear?” Not that our country is a paragon of religious tolerance or ideal secular rule; it is just that we seem to do both a bit better than most, even though after a mere 236+ years we are continuing to struggle to get it right.
The First Amendment to our Constitution, common sense seems to say, should have no trouble selling itself to any government advocating democracy for its people. Its humanitarian wisdom seems beyond universal. So what are the blindspots in the Middle East?
History, of course. And imprisoned minds.
History has long, deep roots. Even with revolution, as in our own experience, change comes slowly; new roots have fragile fingers. In the Middle East tribal and religious histories have intermingled for thousands of years with little tolerance of differences – an understated understatement. People need time to struggle, grow through their pasts as well as those of their ancestors.
Minds imprisoned by the past complicate perception and acceptance of a changing world. And minds with a belief in a God who justifies the conflicts of imprisoned minds tend to live in a jungle of righteousness. The middle East needs time and inspired leadership to find its way through.
In the process, hopefully, the people there may learn to render to the Caesars of the secular wilderness what is their due, and to the gods in their gardens, theirs. Meanwhile, those of us still struggling through the young years of democracy can watch and hope they will hear the words of Jefferson and find at least a workable tolerance for the differences among them.