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Is there a Place for Public Religious Expression  in a Secular Polity? Is there a Place for Public Religious Expression in a Secular Polity?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2015-01-24 14:28:11
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Is there a Place for Public Religious Expression  in a Secular Polity?
A Revisiting of “the Wall of Separation between Church and State”
Dr. Emanuel L. Paparella

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It was Thomas Jefferson who first introduced the metaphor of “the wall of separation between Church and State.” That metaphor eventually was widely accepted almost as an icon of a strict uncompromising separation, almost a secular dogma, championing any secular polity wherein religious influences are systematically eliminated from public life. Freedom of religion, or from religion, continues to be respected but it is understood as confined to the private sphere of one’s home, or the churches on Sunday, the synagogues on Saturday, or the mosques on Friday.

When we survey the two hundred years plus of American democracy, however, an inconvenient truth emerges in regard to this governmental principle and it is this: the intention may have been to foment more freedom and tolerance but alas, for most of American history the catch phrase “separation of church and state” and its metaphoric rendering as “a wall of separation” have been used as expressions of exclusion, intolerance and bigotry, to silence people and communities of faith and attempt to exclude them from full participation from the public marketplace of ideas with initiatives informed by spiritual values that go beyond a banal New Age Movement. This is not to deny the opposite abuse, that in the 18th and 19th century there were misguided citizens who, disagreeing with the separation, attempted to frighten the general public by asserting that it would lead to political atheism and immorality. That attempt was the other side of the coin: a slanderous political bias and smear and most people saw it for what it was.

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This reprehensible rhetoric returned with a vengeance with the arrival in the last quarter of the 19th century of waves of Catholic immigrants, mostly Irish, Italian, Polish, who resisted all attempts at assimilation into the Protestant establishment. They refused to buy the idea that they had to give up their religion or faith to conform to the customs of the host country, and proceeded to establish their own schools. This non-conformance alarmed the bigoted nativist elements, which included the Know Nothings and later the Ku Klux Klan. They embraced a separationist rhetoric and principles in a continuing, and more often than not violent, campaign to restrict the role of Catholics in American public life.

The question arises: why should we care about this metaphor today? We should care because the wall is all too often used to separate religion from public life, thereby promoting a religion that is essentially private and a state that is strictly secular. This would have concerned the founding fathers because they viewed religion, to paraphrase George Washington's words, as an indispensable support for social order and political prosperity.

Metaphors can at times cancel out the true intent for using them. Jefferson’s metaphor has unfortunately been used to silence the religious voice in the marketplace of ideas. It is a sort of religious apartheid. Today that wall is the cherished emblem of a strict separationist dogma intolerant of any religious influence in the public square. Federal and state courts have used the "wall of separation" concept to justify censoring private religious expression (such as Christmas crèches) in public fora; stripping public spaces of religious symbols (such as crosses); denying public benefits (such as education vouchers) for religious entities; and excluding religious citizens and organizations (such as faith-based social welfare agencies) from full participation in civic life on the same terms as their secular counterparts. The systematic and coercive removal of religion from public life evinces a callous indifference toward religion in general and Catholicism in particular, and in fact contradicts basic notions of freedom of religious exercise, expression, and association in a democratic and pluralistic society.

The fact remains that a total and perfect separation is not only impractical but it is nowhere mandated by the Constitution. The wall is incapable of providing specific, practical guidelines that can be implemented in difficult disputes that require a delicate balancing of competing constitutional values, such as freedom of speech, association, religious exercise, and the non-establishment of religion. The uncritical use of the wall metaphor has unnecessarily injected inflexibility into church-state debate, fostered distortions and confusion, and polarized scholars of church-state relations, retarding the search for common ground and compromise on vexing issues. This wall has done what walls frequently do--it has obstructed the view. It has obfuscated our understanding of constitutional principles.

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It is quite trendy nowadays to make envious comparisons between theocracies such as those found in the Islamic world which lamentably repress human rights, and secular democratic countries such as France which loudly proclaim egalitè, fraternitè (without a common Father however), libertè while in the name of free speech tolerate hate speech, slander and provocation. But this is too facile of a comparison. The more relevant comparison should be between a state that is both secular, democratic and religious (such as India or Turkey) and one that suppresses religion from the public square while loudly proclaiming freedom of speech. Even more relevant we should compare the historical record of polities who were religious theocracies once (as Europe in Medieval times) and the sad events of the 20th century. Paradoxically, what happened in the 20th century in secular super-nationalistic polities and ideologies (the lagers and the gulags exterminating millions of innocent people in Nazi Germany and Communist Soviet Union) inimical to religion in general, and in fact substituting religion with ideology, makes the Inquisition and the Crusades look like a picnic in comparison.

 


      
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