Know before you spout

Letters to the Portland Phoenix editors, March 16, 2012

Recent discussions of church and state have revealed how little candidates and pundits know about US history. Religion and politics are connected because morality is central to both. Church and state separation is about avoiding institutional entanglement. Social reform movements in US history demonstrate strong ties between religion and politics in shaping American culture.

In early colonial days, the champions of church and state separation were the Anabaptists and Quakers who advocated religious liberty. Roger Williams asserted that religion as a matter of conscience should never be coerced by government. Thomas Jefferson argued that government was too important to be dominated by churches. Their reasons were opposite, but their conclusion similar. Thus, Baptists in Virginia joined with Jefferson to support his "Statue to Establish Religious Liberty," the basis of the First Amendment.

In the Constitution's pledge to keep religious and political institutions separate, there is a tension between the government's role to "establish justice" and "promote the general welfare," and its pledge not to establish a religion or prohibit "the free exercise" of religion. This is tension between religious and political life sometimes requires a Supreme Court decision to clarify the lines.

We expect the government to set limits on religious freedom, just as it does on the freedom of speech. We don't want human sacrifice as in some ancient religions! Was it legitimate to ban Mormon polygyny? Restrict religious groups from illegal drugs in ceremonies? Intervene on behalf of a child whose Christian Scientist parents rely on prayer rather than medicine to cure an illness? And now should government insure equal access to health care options for women, even though some religious institutions oppose such?

These are questions symptomatic of the tension between public welfare and religious liberty in a pluralistic society. To promote the public good while respecting religious liberty is not easy but important. It would help to have those in the throes of the public debate know history so as to minimize the exaggerated pontifications.

Reverend Wesley J. Mills

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  Topics: Letters , Politics, Religion, Separation of Church and State,  More more >
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