Thursday, February 16, 2006

Separation of Church and State

Having just reread Jefferson's "Query XVII" from Notes on the State of Virginia and Franklin’s Autobiography, I am more than ever convinced that our founding fathers had no intention of having religion be an institution assisted financially and promoted by the state. Jefferson writes that reason and free inquiry will lead one to Christianity (one wonders about that), not the coercion of government towards one religion; further, he argues against the persecution of Quakers under the law and that "the rights of conscience" (e.g., private/religious) should never be submitted to under some government statute. Franklin, who signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, also clearly is in favor of religious liberalism and the separation of the state and church, criticizes a Presbyterian preacher for coercing his audience into being good Presbyterians, not good citizens; further, he laments the division of citizens brought about by religion, stating that some religions "serv’d principally to divide us and make us unfriendly with one another." Considering these statements, as well as the establishment clause of the first amendment, one is left with a clear sense that Jefferson and Franklin’s philosophy was founded upon the freedom of one’s private religion outside of the domain of the public.

Conservatives, however, sometimes create a faux history of America, arguing that religion is never mentioned as excluded in the Constitution, and, therefore, government funds should be used for supporting religion. This goes against both the intent of Jefferson and Franklin and against traditional interpretations of the first amendment, of course. The Bush administration has seen fit to favor faith-based initiatives, thus providing money to religious organizations and charities. This is problematic on many levels, especially because it breaks down the barrier that was intended between the public institution of the state and the private one of religion. All too often, the only religion favored in these initiatives is, of course, Christianity, thus violating the first amendment. I worry over the chipping away of these laws that guarantee the rights of all citizens, including those who want freedom from religion.


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