Church vs. State, or The Rights of Conscience?

“No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority.” — Thomas Jefferson

John Lennon, in the song that went on to become more associated with his name than any other, wrote these words:

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace . . .

Lennon thought that a world without nations or religions would be a world where there would be no more reason for violence. Although the appeal to national and religious loyalty has been used, and often wrongly used, to compel men to go to war, I think he was wrong.

Let’s suppose we could give Lennon the world he asked for in Imagine: borders have been erased, religions of all kinds have become a relic of the past. There’s no reason to fight for the preeminence of our religion because we don’t believe in God anymore.We no longer have to worry about how our actions may affect our afterlife because we no longer believe in an afterlife. We’re only concerned with the here and the now.

Unfortunately the here and now still involves poverty, hunger, disease, domestic violence, rape, murder, and theft (as far as I can see neither the abolishing of state nor religion would remove these). We try to solve, or at least curb, these problems. This involves cooperative effort, but not everyone agrees on how to solve the problems. We agree that murder is wrong, but if someone murders another person, should they be killed? Or just imprisoned? We agree that stealing is wrong, but if someone has a lot and someone else has nothing, is it right to take some from the one who has too much so that the other can have enough? How much is “enough”? How much is “too much”?

We begin to run into issues of ethics and social obligation. My guess is that our hypothetical world would look very similar to the world we live in now: people would have sharp disagreements over right and wrong, with or without religion informing their ethics, and when persuasion failed, the next step would be physical enforcement — i.e. violence, or at least the threat of violence.

But how far should people be forced to conform to the reigning ideology?

The very first phrase of the very first sentence of the very first Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . .

I’m getting the sense that maybe they thought this was important.

Considering the context of their Western European heritage (although I certainly don’t mean to imply that Western Europe was unique in this regard), it’s little wonder that the framers of the Constitution felt the urgent necessity of establishing each person’s right to practice whatever religion they chose, in whatever manner they chose, without interference from the government. England, their national ancestor, had long suffered from a sticky relationship between Church and State, which had been bad for the Church, bad for the State, and bad for the people: for example during the Protestant Reformation, where the population had been put through a kind of religious musical chairs game as Protestant and Catholic monarchs struggled over power and religious preeminence, with religious persecution teeter-tottering between Catholic and Protestant with every transfer of State power.

The Founders rightly saw that the conscience was a thing that should not, and in fact could not be forced. At the time that the Constitution was written, the large majority of the population would have identified as Christian, of one sort or another. Because of the fact that the majority of the population was religious, in that they believed in the existence of a higher power and that they had moral obligations to that higher power, the protection of the conscience against the dictates of the government was framed as a separation of Church and State.

However, what the right to religious freedom is really guaranteeing is the right of each individual to obey the demands of his or her conscience without harassment from the government. Naturally there are exceptions: if my conscience tells me to take someone else’s life or property, the law must intervene because I am depriving them of their right to personal safety and property possession. But insofar as the demands of my conscience do not infringe on the basic human rights of another person, I am free to observe them as I see fit. In my case, this means my belief in and practice of Christianity.

But does the absence of religion in one’s worldview make one immune to the principle of the separation of Church and State? I think this is an important question for our time because we are living in a world where there is a growing number of people whose worldview is not determined by a particular religion. They, as much as any religious person, have beliefs about right and wrong. They, as much as any religious person, have the right to live by those beliefs. And they, as much as any religious person, will have the temptation to bend society to fit their concept of the morally ideal, even at the expense of individual rights.

In our time, the phrase “Church and State” is somewhat outdated because it puts an over-emphasis on the danger of elevating a particular religious ideology, while completely ignoring even the possibility of elevating a non-religious ideology — an ideology that might be very much at odds with the consciences of large segments of the population who are religious, or even those who aren’t.

I leave it to the reader to make specific applications — my only aim in this piece is to get people thinking about this most fundamental of Constitutional principles — the separation of Church and State — as more than the restraint of a particular religion’s power, but rather as a broader commitment on the part of our government to uphold the freedom of the individual conscience.

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