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Church-State Issues Revisited

Saturday, our family ate at a fine Mexican restaurant. Yesterday, we enjoyed Thai food, Belgian waffles, jazz music, and throngs of people from all over the metropolitan area at the annual TasteFest in Detroitâ??s New Center. All in all, the weekend was shaping up to be somewhat of a wonderful multicultural experience. An American experience.

Upon the return trip home, following a car with a bumper sticker that read: â??God Rules!â? jolted me a bit. There was also a Christian fish sticker with the word "Jesus" inscribed inside. The owner of the car, possibly the woman driving, certainly had the right to display those stickers. I couldnâ??t help but wonder whether she had voted for George Bush. In my mindâ??s eye, I could almost see Antonin Scalia blessing the bumper display. I thought of various belief systems represented across our nation, and then I envisioned the narrow Christian right influence within our administration superimposed over the lot -- vibrant diversity beginning to choke under the miasma of evangelical fundamentalism.

I read with interest Noah Feldmanâ??s article in The New York Times yesterday: â??A Church-State Solution.â? He outlined history of our American experiment with â??no established religion at all.â?

Infusions of religious diversity have brought challenges, and Feldman describes two conflicting camps in our present era: 1) â??values evangelicals,â? those â??who insist on the direct relevance of religious values to political life,â? and 2) â??legal secularists,â? those â??who see religion as a matter of personal belief and choice largely irrelevant to government and who are concerned that values derived from religion will divide us, not unite us.â?

Noah Feldman writes:

Despite the gravity of the problem, I believe there is an answer. Put simply, it is this: offer greater latitude for religious speech and symbols in public debate, but also impose a stricter ban on state financing of religious institutions and activities. This approach, the mirror image of O'Connor's compromise, is drawn from the framers' vision and the historical experience of separating church and state in America. The framers might well have been mystified by courthouse statues depicting the Ten Commandments, but they would not have objected unless the monuments were built with public money. Having made a revolution over unfair taxation, they thought of government support in terms of dollars spent, not abstract symbols.

Also:

These constitutional principles, reduced to their core, can be captured in a simple slogan: no coercion and no money. If no one is being coerced by the government, and if the government is not spending its money to build religious-themed monuments or support religious institutions and practices, the courts should hold that the Constitution is not violated.

I heartily agree with his proposal to ban government financing of religious activities, yet Iâ??m not entirely ready to support his greater latitude for religious speech and symbols in the public realm, at least right now. I need to chew on this some more. â??Religious speech and symbols in public debateâ? are one thing, but where does this debate take us? Feldman talks about acceptance of religious symbols on public property in certain circumstances, for instance a Ten Commandments monument not â??built with public money.â? But in our present climate, these are not always benign expressions of religious belief, at the same time embracing respect for religious diversity in our country. A bumper decal that says â??God rules!â? could raise some eyebrows if displayed on government property. Does that denote a god that literally rules or is it merely saying that â??God is coolâ? in modern jargon? Apparently, our Supreme Court has ruled that exhibitions on government property delineating ten religious mandates, the first literally commanding believers to have no others gods before a particular monotheistic god, are acceptable in particular situations. Perhaps some would view these as â??abstract symbols,â? but others might view symbols as directly representing a personâ??s or entityâ??s position regarding a belief, regardless of actual intent, just as one might logically assume a religious bumper sticker to reflect a car ownerâ??s belief system. And, some belief systems or religious factions inherently do have coercive intentions.

Feldman has written an intelligent article based on reasonable, respectful considerations and expectations. I havenâ??t always seen evidence of this in our present administration. Our country has witnessed unprecedented actions by extremists who would undermine church-state separation. Although I agree with Noah Feldman that religious coercion isnâ??t acceptable in the public realm, Iâ??m reticent to trust that some others see any distinction between expressing beliefs and forcing them on others.

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