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20 May 2013

Reframing the Church/State Debate

SCotUS has agreed to hear a case involving the opening of public meetings (i.e. municipal legislatures) with prayer. I'm guessing that the decision will come down to some technical and arcane detail of law and will thus be a fairly narrow ruling, but it still gives a moment to consider an important social issue. I've written before on matters of church and state, but perhaps it's worth reminding ourselves about some basics. The initial historical impetus for a separation between religion and the state was decidedly self-interested. One of the first religious groups to tout a clear separation were ironically Baptists, who found themselves politically marginalized by their Anglican neighbors. It wasn't so much that early-American Baptists didn't want religion mixed up with politics; they just didn't want someone else's religion mixed up with politics, and so the bargain was, they decided, that the state had to be delivered from religion. Flash forward a few hundred years, and our collective amnesia about this part of our history and our short-sighted self-interest endangers the value in a social institution that many purport to champion. I am a person of faith, a Protestant Christian, and I value my religious freedom, and it is (in part) because of that--not despite it--that I am vociferous about my support of a very strict separation of church and state. (One certainly does not need to be religious, though, to be for religious freedom. Atheists, agnostics, as well as the growing ranks of the unaffiliated should be motivated for very similar reasons.) It may seem petty to squabble over seemingly insignificant things like the phrase "in God we trust" showing up on our currency and license plates or "under God" in our Pledge or a brief prayer to open a town council meeting, but the symbolic importance of those instances matters. Any intrusion of religion into government is dangerous, not so much to the government as it is to religion itself.

Incidentally, the "I feel left out" argument doesn't hold water for me. Unfortunately, this seems to be part of the case that SCotUS is taking up. It's easy to see (I hope) how Jews, Hindus, or Muslims who hear Jesus invoked in prayer or, short of that, hear an otherwise nonsectarian prayer constructed on the template of a Christian prayer would feel "othered." In the same way, however, that framing racially disparaging language as insensitive or offensive (i.e. it hurts feelings) is counterproductive, saying that one feels marginalized as a religious minority in a (culturally) Christian setting like an opening prayer detracts from the fact that such practices actually marginalize people in structural ways.

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