James Jackson: Church and state both victims of each other

James Jackson

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” These words are included in the first amendment to the Constitution as part of the Bill of Rights. Even during normal years, this concept has a tendency to ignite passions by those who choose to interpret it for whatever agenda they favor. 

During an election year, special-interest groups create slogans and mock controversies to turn the heat up on these arguments in an effort to push people to favor one political party over the other. By doing this, the images and reputations of both church and state are tarnished and only serve to discourage any real dialogue and understanding by either side. Both sides have become a victim of the constant misinformation, misrepresentation, and demonizing of each other.

On the one side, there is significant distortion of facts concerning government and its role in the realm of theology.  There are many now who, for political agendas, are attempting to reinterpret and even create clever falsehoods that the Founding Fathers set up a Christian nation. This is deceptive. The Founding Fathers were followers of the Enlightenment, which was a scientific backlash to the oppressive power of the church through European history. Some, like Benjamin Franklin, were indeed Christian in their personal lives, but not in the public realm of governance. 

Some, like Thomas Jefferson, were Deists. They believed that there was a “creator” who created the world, set things in motion, and left mankind to its own devices. This is why when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson said, “they are endowed by their Creator.” Not endowed by Jesus, or even God. But “endowed by their Creator.”

The framers of the Constitution, mostly Christian in their personal lives, chose not to include Jefferson’s words. In truth, they did not place the word God or Christian anywhere in the Constitution to ensure that government and religion remained separate entities. The men who created our government were still in power when they wrote and ratified a treaty with Libya in 1797, which stated, “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.” 

Even the words “In God We Trust” were not adopted by our government until 1956 in reaction to the atheism of the Soviet Union. The idea that religious ideology should be legislated through our government and imposed on the public at large is directly opposed to the intentions of our founders. Religion and churches were a separate, social entity and were to be respected and protected, but not endorsed or adopted as national law. They were not taxed by the government out of this respect and acknowledgement of the separate spheres, one for the body and one for the spirit. When churches actively preach politics and encourage their members to become active for one party or political issue, they violate this mutual respect and separation, and as such should be classified as a political action group and taxed on their revenue.

On the other side, government, in its attempts to prevent the church domination of the country experienced by our ancestors in Europe, has tended to go overboard in respecting the rights of a church or religious people to express their faith in a public forum. Forcing religious organizations to participate in social policy that goes against their teachings is a violation of this separation. Refusing to allow religious symbolism in public places is prohibiting the “free exercise thereof” espoused by our Founders, as long there is equal opportunity for all religions to express their faith.  

The viciousness and animosity of both sides toward each other is so great now that it’s not certain we can go back to what we were meant to be. If not, though, this “culture war” will benefit neither and ultimately destroy both.

Contact James Jackson at schoolnews@thesuntimes.com.