Memo to Messrs. McCain and Obama concerning a wall that needs mending
By George A. Ricker
To Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama: since you are the presidential nominees of your respective political parties, I wanted to take this opportunity to raise an issue that probably will not get much attention this fall. Each of you wants to be my president. I assume each of you wants my vote. Therefore, each of you should, at least, consider what I am about to tell you.
There is a wall that needs mending.
It is not a real wall but a metaphorical one. I know both of you have heard of the wall because each of you has, at various times, expressed some support for it. I refer, of course, to the wall of separation between government and religions that the founders of this nation thought they had written into the U.S. Constitution. Thomas Jefferson described it as a wall of separation between church and state in his letter to the Danbury Baptists, written after he had become the third president of the United States. I prefer to call it a wall of separation between government and religions because the Constitution does not mention church and state. It does mention government and religion.
Each of you has been at great pains to explain the importance of your religious convictions in your own life, both public and private, and that is fine. I am in no position to judge the sincerity of such statements and generally tend to regard them as irrelevant. I certainly do not quarrel with your right to express those sentiments. Some voters may find value in them. For my part, I am more interested in action than utterance.
But your religious opinions should have nothing to do with whether or not, as president, you defend the wall that has allowed American citizens to pursue their own convictions in the matter of religious faith and has protected our society, to some degree at least, from the sectarianism that has proven so destructive in so many places in the world. Your defense of the wall would be a defense of religious freedom. It would protect the rights of conscience of all Americans from either the tyranny of the state or the bullying of the mob. It would protect the rights of the religious and the nonreligious alike. It would ensure that no agency or official of our national government attempted to endorse any religious orthodoxy as a matter of public policy or to make it appear that our nation has an official religion when it does not.
Freedom from religion
During political campaigns, we often hear politicians insist that the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion when in fact it does both. The First Amendment prohibits Congress from passing any law respecting an establishment of religion. Note the use of the indefinite article in that clause. It does not just bar the establishment of a national church, as some would have you believe. It prohibits anything that can be regarded as an establishment of religion. Clearly, the intent of the founders was to provide us with freedom from any such establishment.
The First Amendment also protects the right of each American to follow his or her conscience in matters of religion. If the freedom to practice religions is protected from governmental interference, then so is the freedom to practice none. Here again, the Constitution provides freedom from religion as well as freedom of religion. Finally, the Constitution declares, in Article Six, that there shall be no religious test for public office.
So, while many of the founders of this nation were religious men, it seems clear they intended to create a national government that was secular and nonsectarian. It was to be a government that derived its just powers from the consent of the governed, to borrow Jeffersons language from the Declaration of Independence, and not from the god of any religion.
An irreducible minority
But even more than the constitutional protection for freedom from religion, it is part and parcel of our legal and governmental system that all Americans, which means each of us if it means anything, stand as equals before their government and are to be treated as equals by that government. Our nation has not always lived up to that promise. A large part of our history has been the story of various struggles as we fought to extend the promise of America to those who were left out at the beginning and to ensure that they, too, had the equal protection under the law and the equal standing before the government that is now held to be the right of every American citizen.
Included in the panoply of rights contained in that promise, and perhaps most central to it, is the right to freedom of conscience. Our government may not attempt to impose any orthodoxy on its citizens. It has no right to declare that any notion about gods and religions is superior to any other. It has no right to proclaim that religion is superior to non religion or to wrap itself in the trappings of any religion. It has no right to spend our taxes in support of any religious denomination, regardless of the good works it may do.
We are a diverse people with many opinions about gods and religions. Since religious rights are among the most personal rights, we have rightly insisted that no agent of government may dictate to us on matters of belief. It is precisely because of the principle of noninterference that the wall of separation between government and religions needs to be there.
Our government can protect the rights of conscience of all Americans only when it maintains a position of strict neutrality vis-à-vis either specific religions or religion in general. A government that serves all its people has no business wrapping itself in the trappings of any religion. Our Constitution does not require governmental hostility toward religions. However, it does require neutrality. And it must be neutrality that is enforced not with lip-service or a wink and a nod but with a clear understanding of what it requires and why it matters.
For your consideration
Here is an example of precisely what I mean.
Both of you gentlemen are accustomed to ending your stump speeches with the clause, God bless America, most of the time. The practice seems required of most politicians and most political statements these days. For you, the statement may be a genuine expression of religious sentiment. For others, it may simply be pandering to the presumed opinions of the audience. But regardless of the motivation, one cannot argue with the right of any political candidate or governmental official to use such language if they choose to do so. People do not lose their religious freedoms because they seek or hold governmental office, whether that office is elected or appointed.
However, suppose the clause is put on the side of a government office building or on a government-funded web site and so on. No longer is it a matter of either freedom of religion or freedom of speech. Now a government agency is expressing a religious opinion. It is saying, at a minimum, that a god of some description exists and may confer blessings on our nation. It is, essentially, a public prayer, one that uses government facilities and is paid for with the tax dollars of Americans, who may or may not share the sentiment. And, while such expressions are usually held by the courts to be meaningless, generic indications of our nations religiosity, the truth is that no religious believer worships a generic god, and even meaningless religious expressions may undermine the wall of separation between governments and religions.
So while senators Barack Obama and John McCain are free, as they should be, to say God bless America as part of their own religious expression, they ought not be free to pass a law that funds a memorial that emblazons that language on the side of a government building. The first exercise does not violate the establishment clause. The second does.
The genius of our system of government was precisely that it was based on the rights of human beings. While Jefferson declared our rights were endowed by a creator, he also insisted the protection of those rights was the business of governments formed by human beings and deriving their just powers from those same human beings. It was, in Lincolns majestic phrasing, government of the people, by the people and for the people
In such a system, no ones rights are damaged when the wall of separation between government and religions is kept strong. No ones religious rights are harmed if our government offers no opinions about gods and endorses no religions. No ones religious freedom is inhibited if our government does not insert religious language in our Pledge of Allegiance or put religious slogans on our money. No ones rights of conscience are damaged when government agencies refrain from declaring a National Day of Prayer or public schools are prevented from leading their students in prayer.
Indeed, it is only when government does indulge in such practices that the rights of conscience of some of our citizens may be ignored or threatened. In a free society of equals, government has no right to assert a preference for any particular religion or for religion over non religion.
Senators, both of you believe in a god and follow a religion. I do neither. However, all three of us are American citizens. Just as I support your right to worship whatever god you worship in the manner of your choosing, I assume you support my right to worship no god and follow no religion.
Our government was not based on the Christian religion in general or the dogma of any of the many Christian sects in particular. Those who assert that it was are making a claim based on ignorance and bad history. Anyone who honestly studies our history knows that to be the case. As president, one of you will have the opportunity to reverse the trend of recent years and to establish, once again, that the wall of separation between government and religions is a necessary protection for our rights of conscience and needs to be made stronger to ensure that we can pass the same freedoms on to our children that we hold so dear.
This is not a call to drive religions out of the public square. Our society is awash with religions of all sorts, and we are free to discuss, analyze, argue, debate, lampoon and satirize opinions about gods, religions and all related subjects. I, for one, welcome the opportunity to engage in such activities. All the wall of separation requires is that religions be excluded from that portion of the public square that is owned and operated by government agencies.
Senators McCain and Obama, I urge whichever of you earns the right to be the next president of the United States of America to invest some portion of your administrations efforts to rebuilding the wall of separation between government and religions. Declare for all to hear and understand that our government is a secular institution, one which respects the rights of conscience of all Americans, whether they be religious or not.
Those who value the Constitution and the rights it guarantees will be most grateful.
© 2008 By George A. Ricker