The Role of Religion in Our Government


Randy DeSoto sent me an email with a link to his latest article on the website “The Conservative Voice”, in which he discusses what he calls “Obama’s Schizophrenic Views on Faith.”

His email reads as follows:

I’ve linked my most recent article, which opens with a description from a scene from Seinfeld, when Jerry is informed by a rental car employee that the car he reserved is not available. Jerry, in frustration, says that anyone can take the reservation (“Take, take, take”), it’s holding it that is the most important part.

In a the same way Obama talks a good talk about the role religious belief should play in public life. He says, “So to say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”

However, where the rubber meets the road on some of the seminal issues of our day, he does not deliver the goods.

The Declaration of Independence inevitably comes into play in my discussion of this subject, making it a very relevant read for the 4th of July holiday.

Randy

The link to the article is:

http://www.theconservativevoice.com/article/32999.html

I posted a response to this article which reads as follows:

Randy,

In this piece you repeat the significant underlying logical (and legal) fallacy which was at the core of your previous discussion of gay marriage. Your assertion that the Declaration of Independence supports a role for religion in our government is a classic rhetorical trick, argument by misdirection.

And the reason for this sophistical sleight of hand is readily apparent: While the Declaration contains four “religious” references (“God”, “Creator”, “Supreme Judge” and “Divine Providence”), the document on which our government is actually founded — the Constitution — contains no reference to a “god” of any kind and mentions “religion” only for the purpose of denying to the government entirely the power to legislate with respect thereto.

I challenge you to show me where in the Constitution we find support for your contention that religion has a proper role in our government?

“Morality”, by the way, is an expression of principles of right and wrong in behavior and is not an inherently religious concept. The implication in your article that religious non-believers are somehow deficient in “morality” compared to religious believers is not only offensive but is also belied by the history of human misery inflicted in the name of one religion or another.

Furthermore, the reason for the Constitution’s mandate that government have no role in religion (and the logical corollary that religion should have no role in government) is obvious. The primary raison d’etre of government is coercion and coerced religion has no proper place in the legal system of a democratic society.

To the extent that Barack Obama is “schizophrenic” on the proper role of religion in government, I fault him only for allowing religion any role at all.

Jim Reilly

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3 thoughts on “The Role of Religion in Our Government

  1. Jim,
    In response to your observations below about me wrongly incorporating beliefs found in the Declaration of Independence regarding the origins of rights, first I’d like to quote from John Kennedy’s Inaugural Address of 1961.
    John Kennedy perhaps made the point I’m trying to make best in his Inaugural Address in 1961. He said just seconds into his speech, “For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath [to uphold the Constitution] our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago. The world is very different now…And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.” The Constitution is based on underlying philosophical beliefs, many of which are expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

    I have not performed any sophisticated sleight of hand. The Constitution itself states, “Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth.” The nation began in 1776. The Declaration of Independence was our founding document. The former dean of my law school I believe aptly described the relationship of the two documents when he said that the Declaration is like a corporation’s charter and the Constitution make up the bylaws. In other words the Declaration states what we as a country are all about: securing the God-given rights of man (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness). The Constitution is the means to that end. It’s interesting to note the Preamble to the Constitution provides its purpose is to “form a more perfect union” than that under the Articles of Confederation and to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity…” This language affirms the point I am making. Blessing implies that there is a Blessor and liberty, of course, needs a context. The Founders understood it as a God-given right. Obviously it is not the freedom to do whatever one wants or there would be no basis for society.

    Since you place such great weight on the Constitution’s First Amendment providing no place for religious belief in public life, I must point out the President of the Constitutional Convention and first President of the United States did not see it that way. In his First Inaugural Address (likely drafted at least in part by Alexander Hamilton–one of the writers of the Federalist Papers), George Washington said, “it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides over council of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge…; since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which heaven itself has ordained [a reference to the laws of nature and Nature’s God]; and since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment intrusted to the hands of the American people.” There is that connection again, found in the Declaration: liberty in the context of a God who grants it.

    Washington in his Farewell Address, seven years later took on the notion that morality and religion can ultimately be separated. “Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connexions with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Hamilton and James Madison (The Father of the Constitution,” fellow writer of the Federalist Papers, man who presented the first draft Bill of Rights to Congress, including the First Amendment) shared responsibilities in drafting this Address.

    Madison, in his famous essay “Memorial and Remonstrance”, which he wrote in support of Virginia’s Statute of Religious Liberty, observed that the whole foundation for religious liberty is that it is a God-given right. He wrote, “…Religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can only be dictated by reason and conviction and the conscience of every man….This right is in its nature an unalienable right….It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage, and such only, as he believes to be acceptable to him.” Madison ended his essay by comparing the right to freedom of conscience to the other fundamental rights that maintain liberty such as freedom of the press, trial by jury, separation of powers, and the right to vote, and he prayed that “the Supreme Lawgiver of the Universe” would help all the legislators to see the truth in what he wrote and vote accordingly, which they did. “Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free…that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens…tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our blessed religion, who being lord of both body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to exalt it by its influence on reason alone…”

    I’m sorry. I could go on-and-on. I’ve literally wrote and book about this subject (We Hold These Truths), and have thought about, read about, and discussed it in various settings for years.

    Jim, you’ve obviously done your homework too. Certainly it is true, we should all have freedom on conscience in this country: it is a God-given right. As to the other rights you advocate–abortion, same-sex marriage–I believe they are not God-given and in fact contrary to His design. I share Washington’s belief that the “propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right.”

    Randy

  2. I was looking at Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance again. I quoted it below for the proposition that Madison believed that freedom of conscience is a God-given right, and he did. So for the reason I cited him, I was correct. I incorrectly wrote that this essay was in support of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom (though it did end up helping to pave the way for its passage). Madison, in fact, wrote the essay in 1784 to oppose a bill forcing Virginia’s citizens to pay a tax to support the teaching of the Christian religion. This raised the very establishment of religion issue that had created such havoc back in Old Europe, which most hoped to avoid in the New World. I would oppose it in our day as well, as a violation of the First Amendment.

  3. Thanks for joining in the conversation here, Randy, and my apologies for the rather slow response.

    You argue your position well, but have made a number of arguments with which I disagree.

    Of course, the Constitution is based, in part, on underlying philosophical beliefs. There is, however, nothing inherently religious about those beliefs. One need not believe in any particular religion, or even in any god, to understand and respect the concepts of personal liberty, individual rights and the appropriate relationship between government and a free people. I look nowhere other than my own mind for the source of dignity which underlies our human rights.

    I am still waiting for you (or anyone else) to point to the specific provision of the Constitution by which the people gave to the government a role in religion … or gave to religion a role in the government.

    Modern Christians, such as yourself, want very much to create for religion such a role in our government. In your anxiety to do so, you grasp at such straws as the convention by which the Constitution was dated, an assertion which borders on the frivolous. Such a standard presupposes that any use of the prevalent dating system implies an underlying religious belief (and a Christian religious belief at that).

    I find it interesting that this is the ONLY thing in the Constitution itself which you can cite in support of your position. If the Constitution is, as you say, “the means” by which our country is to secure the “God-given rights of man”, I can’t help wondering why the document just doesn’t SAY that. Would have been simple enough. Instead, the authors of the Constitution rather scrupulously avoided doing so.

    In fact, the only reference to religion in the main body of the Constitution is in Article VI, section 3, which reads as follows: “…no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Which certainly implies a intention to keep religious influence out of public office.

    In support of your position, you quote James Madison at some length. Inasmuch as he was the principal author of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, he would seem to be a good authority on the subject.

    Yet, as I noted in my discussion with John Sloan, Madison was of the opinion that the First Amendment established a “total separation of the church from the state”. Hard to say it more succinctly than that.

    Interestingly, the Madison essay, to which you refer in both of your comments — and contrary to the purpose for which you cited it — also supports the conclusion that religion has no proper role in our government. Note the key phrase: “It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage, AND SUCH ONLY, as he believes to be acceptable to him.”

    The only way that people can be free to do as he says is if the government can exert no influence over religious belief. If religion has a role in government, government inevitably has a role in religion. Influence on government which produces favor for any particular religious belief perforce has a countervailing unfavorable influence on others who don’t share that particular religious belief.

    The only way to truly prevent government from having power over religion is to allow religion to hold no sway over the government.

    You concede that a tax supporting the teaching of the Christian religion raises “the very establishment of religion issue” that the First Amendment was designed to address and on that basis would oppose such a measure today.

    Yet, I would guess that you support the concept of tax exempt status for religions, which I believe to be violative of the First Amendment as well. The practical effect of tax exempt status for some is that others have to make up the difference, imposing through the back door the very tax you say you would not allow to enter through the front.

    You also give lip service to freedom of conscience as a “God-given right”. But in the very next sentence make it clear that you would extend to those with whom you disagree no right to exercise that “freedom” of conscience because they do not agree with your concept of what rights are “God-given”.

    You may not believe that abortion and gay marriage are god-given and that they are “contrary to His design”. Which is fine; you have every right to hold those beliefs and I fully support that right to do so.

    However, neither you nor any member of any religion has any right to impose your view of god’s “design” on the rest of us. Where in the Constitution does it say that you do?

    And how would you feel if proponents of either not only sought it for themselves, but wanted to require you to adhere to their beliefs as well. I’m quite confident you would say government has no right to compel anyone to have an abortion. Or to enter into a gay marriage.

    And, frankly, I would agree … and would be the first to stand up and say so.

    The contentious issue of church and state has such a simple solution that it is a never-ending source of amazement to me that so many people can’t (or won’t) see it. Believe what you like about religion and practice your beliefs. And let everyone else do the same.

    If you don’t believe in abortion, don’t have one. If you don’t believe in gay marriage, don’t enter into one.

    But don’t try to tell me that the Constitution of this country allows you to impose your beliefs on others who don’t share those views. It doesn’t … and shouldn’t.

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