Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Religion and Politics

The founders of the United States were wise in creating the separation of church and state. They were far from being anti-religion for nearly all attended church services from time to time. Church attendance and religious discussions in public were common practices. This did not mean that like today people of different faith backgrounds readily accepted one another as friends, co-workers and married across denomination backgrounds, and spoke well of denominations that were outside their own stream.

The culture in the 1770s and 1780s was vastly different than our cultural of broad acceptance of people of other Christian denominations. Marrying outside one’s denomination was far from being widely accepted. A Baptist marrying a Roman Catholic created a family scandal. Baptists viewed Methodists with suspicion. People tended to live, work and socialize within their faith tradition.

It was from this cultural milieu that those who signed the Declaration of Independence and shaped the American Constitution came. Coming from a diverse array of faiths, and some non-practicing any faith, they cautioned against the mixing of politics and religion. While they recognized that value faith played in the daily lives of themselves, family, friends and neighbors, they were also well aware of the problems that are created when one’s personal faith is a highly dominating factor in determining public policies. They were unlike the French revolutionaries who, in reacting against the abuses of the dominant religion of their culture, were anti-religion and created national policy that was strikingly anti-religion.

In shaping the national documents and in setting forth public policy the founders set aside their own religion’s doctrinal positions. Admittedly their religious believes shaped their thinking and moved their hearts to be more passionate on some issues than another, but they did not seek to entrench specific and narrow religious dogma or statements into public policy. For example, while all were of the Christian faith in background, and most in practice, they did not enshrine into the founding documents or in early documents that Sunday was to be a non-work day or speak in any manner to compel people to attend church, or that Christian values should be taught by the state to its citizens. They knew from oberservation and experience that when religion battles to be a dominate voice in shaping public policy in general that the consequences for the community, nation and citizenry as a whole has detrimental consequences.

Instead, these Christian men, many with strong religious convictions, established a religious neutral nation, a nation where people of different faiths can and should participate in public discussion and the shaping of public policy without any one faith stream dominating another. In an era when there is much pandering by various politicians to those of a particular religious persuasion, it is worth recalling the significance of the United States being founded as to be a nation that is religiously neutral and tolerant.

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