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Church, State and the Vanishing Wall

Church, State and the Vanishing Wall

by Linda Ryan

There are always topics that tend to garner a lot of public opinion, one of the latest being the issue of church and state and how much control each of these two entities should have with regard to the other. A recent article in the Washington Post by Michelle Boorstein referenced the result of studies conducted by two respected public opinion polling firms. The results indicated that 46% of respondents feared that their freedom to practice their religion was being interfered with or constrained by government. Another 46% believed that religious groups were attempting to force their beliefs on all citizens, whether or not the respondents agreed with those beliefs. The statistics were, to say the least, interesting and a bit disconcerting.

The demographics indicated that those who feared curtailment of religious freedoms were older Americans, white, Evangelicals, Republicans and those with very conservative political views. Those who felt their own beliefs were curtailed or ignored by other religious bodies were those described as young adults under 30(Generation Zs), Democrats, politically liberal, and generally unaffiliated with a church, denomination or religion. In short, the two groups are as different as chalk and cheese.

Freedom of religion has been a topic of interest since the founding of this country. One group of the original colonies was established by entrepreneurs and young men anxious to make their fortunes. With them came the established church as important (as was conversion of the local Native Americans) but secondary to profit. Another group was founded by dissenters who felt they were persecuted by the established church and sought a place where they could practice their faith unhindered. Pilgrims who settled at Plymouth wanted to purify the established church of its’ more Roman Catholic elements. Puritans were much more restrictive, wanting to do away with the established church altogether and follow a strict Calvinist theology. Other denominations came to the colonies with each wave of new immigrants, each denomination having the opportunity to either make a space for itself in the cities or carve out a niche in the ever-shrinking wilderness.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that there should be a wall of separation between church and state, a thought which was incorporated into the Constitution of the United States as part of the first amendment of what is now called the Bill of Rights. That amendment stated, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” While we may not be seeing individuals and groups attempting to establish a national church, we are certainly seeing those individuals and groups attempting to establish law based on one set of religious beliefs — theirs.

In an article on the Episcopal Café website, Editor-in-chief Jim Naughton made the following observation:

I don’t think our freedom of religion is in any danger, and I am disappointed that well-fed, well-educated, mostly white, mostly male religious leaders who know they will have access to whatever healthcare they need and a comfortable place to which to retire has succeeded in painting themselves as victims whose rights are in danger.”

Naughton has summed up the situation rather well, but I have a feeling, though, that had any woman made such a statement, she would be widely pilloried as a “Feminazi,” man-hater or an example of male-bashing.

Looking statistically, it is generally possible to see that the balance of power between male/female is clearly on the side of the males. In Congress, for example, the ratio of males to females is roughly 81% to 19%.3 The Supreme Court is 66.6% male to 33.3% female. The religious makeup is of identical percentages with 6 Roman Catholic and 3 Jewish members. One woman justice is Roman Catholic and one male is Jewish.

In the ecclesiastical realm, at least among Roman Catholics, various Orthodox denominations and sects, many if not most Protestant denominations, and among many non-Christian faiths, the ratio of male to female leaders is more on the order of 100% and no females need apply. Statistics do not tell the whole story; what is easily seen, however, is that power and the control which comes from power is firmly in the hands of one group and that group shows no real signs of wanting to relinquish or even share it unless they are required to do so.

The increasing clamor that particular groups are being persecuted because others do not jump on their bandwagon or voluntarily agree to follow their beliefs is, I believe, the ultimate hubris. Dissenting opinions and people stating religious beliefs of their own in various media or even with picket signs hardly qualifies as persecution. In a sense, it feels like a reversal of the Christians in the arena with the lions in ancient Rome, only this time the Christians are circling the lions.

The news is full of reports of members of various religious groups around the world being shot, beheaded, burned alive, kidnapped, or forced to flee with only what they can carry on their backs by another group of religionists who are bent on conquest and/or conversion by force. Protests from groups in this country who claim persecution because people choose to decline to follow their particular belief system appears both ludicrous and totally egocentric. The egocentrism and feeling of persecution being felt in some quarters is the fear that they will either (a) displease God or (b) lose power and control resulting in someone else mandating different beliefs on them. For them, it is a case of force or be forced, or so it appears.

The chain-link fence that used to be the wall of separation has come to pass since more and more legislative regulations and judicial decisions are reflecting a favoritism of specific religious points of view over those of others, including those who have no religious beliefs at all. One glaring example is the recent Hobby Lobby decision where the Supreme Court decided in favor of the defendant’s request for relief from providing insurance coverage of contraceptives for its female employees, regardless of those employees’ own religious beliefs or lack thereof. Hobby Lobby declared that it would violate their (Hobby Lobby’s) religious convictions to have to provide such coverage. Five male Roman Catholic justices, who shared a similar religious beliefs regarding contraception, ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby. The three female justices and the Jewish male justice dissented.

There have been other legislations and decisions that upheld one religious group’s beliefs over others’ whose personal, physical, and medical well-being have been compromised without their consent or control or even any seeming respect for their own freedom of religion and practice. It seems the separation of church and state is a one-way street. The direction of the one-way street is determined by groups and individuals with very deep pockets and endorsed by people with power and control to make it happen.

So where does that leave us? Where is the dividing line? Is there a way where the two can really work together for the benefit of all? There is a place for legitimate medical legislation, I believe, particularly when it concerns all segments of society and helps to ensure their health, safety and equal treatment. Many religions teach the need for care for the most vulnerable in their societies, yet some who profess the same religion choose a very different interpretation of the same religious texts and teachings that mandate that care. Both religion and the government require the cooperation of those over whom they exercise supervision and control to a certain extent, and both have areas in which they have strength to balance a weakness in the other.

Perhaps if the two worked together, not to gain preeminence for one particular lobby, special interest group, religious entity or adherents to a particular religious belief alone, but rather for the benefit of all, it might fulfill the mandates of both to provide for the equality of access to all civil rights, benefits and religious autonomy without regard to the person’s race, gender, cultural background, orientation, economic status or religious preference.

For Christians, that would mean the beginning of the realization of the kingdom of God, a place of peace, harmony and justice here and now, not later and somewhere far different. It won’t be popular with the rich, the powerful and those at the top of the hierarchy who would need to give up some power, prestige and control. It would, in the long run, produce a true prosperity, not an economy based on the perception of limited resources when it comes to the good things in life. It would provide for a healthier earth too, which would be a good thing because humanity still needs a home planet, a place where they have to share the good and the bad, even with people who disagree with them.

Ultimately, though, it is a choice for all of us to make as to which path and which leaders to follow, which fear to feed and which to brush aside. Hopefully, we will make the wise choice.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter . She lives in the Diocese of Arizona and is proud to be part of the Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale.

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