“Donald Trump’s potential candidate for Supreme Court justice and many of her immediate family members are members of in a controversial religious group that asks members to take a lifetime loyalty ‘covenant’, encourages female submission to their husbands, and helped inspire publication of The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel about theocratic government.” So, this brings up something interesting to me about religion and government and morality. It presents what seems to be a contradiction. I agree with Ayn Rand on contradictions – check your premises.
“Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.” – Ayn Rand
The contradiction is this – we have freedom of religion and the government isn’t to tell people how to worship. I don’t want people in elected positions to enforce their religion on me. Yet – I want someone who has good moral standards. These are often (though not always) motivated by a person’s religion. When it comes to religion, if you are a real believer, you cannot divorce your religion from your choices. Or can you?
I think, as I think, that the root of my dilemma is actually based on a false assumption.
That false assumption is that there is separation of church and state in America. That’s a common phrase, I think we all know it and we think that it represents the 1st Amendment where it reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” The phrase, “separation of church and state” is traced back to the 1600’s from Baptist founder Roger Williams who wrote of it and also to the early 1800’s to Thomas Jefferson in a private letter he wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people who declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” However, that phrase is not in the Constitution. It does not demand a separation between church and state in those words. What is meant by not making a law respecting an establishment of religion? Does it mean no law that establishes one or does it mean no laws relating to religious establishments.
The first means that the government shall have no official religion or create a state church. The other means that the government can’t make laws relating to what a church can and cannot believe or teach. If the second is the meaning then there are exceptions. A church cannot practice human sacrifices for example.
The Constitution also reads, “…no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
I’m guessing that originally meant that you couldn’t make membership in a particular church or faith a requirement for any public office. But I also think it means the opposite. For example saying someone isn’t qualified for the job because they are a Catholic, or a Baptist, or a Mormon. This came up when John F. Kennedy ran for president. Would he be beholden to the Constitution and his oath of office or the Pope? The anti-catholic bias in the US was incredibly strong. Based on the latest round of attacks on Amy Coney Barrett that bias still exists.
“Only one Catholic, Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York, had ever been the presidential nominee of one of the major parties. Smith’s 1928 campaign was dogged by claims that he would build a tunnel connecting the White House and the Vatican and would amend the Constitution to make Catholicism the nation’s established religion. He was overwhelmingly defeated—even losing much of the then Democratic Solid South.” (JFK Library)
Decades later when JFK ran he knew the bias was still there and he knew that he had to face the matter head on. He did so in a speech, “Are we going to admit to the world that a Jew can be elected Mayor of Dublin, a Protestant can be chosen Foreign Minister of France, a Moslem can be elected to the Israeli parliament—but a Catholic cannot be President of the United States? Are we going to admit to the world–worse still, are we going to admit to ourselves—that one-third of the American people is forever barred from the White House?”
We saw this happen again more recently when Mitt Romney ran for president and his Mormonism became the subject of conversation. If elected would he force people to take more than one wife and stop drinking alcohol?! Like Kennedy gave his Catholic speech, Romney gave his Mormon speech.
During that campaign Romney told a story about his father, also a Mormon and a businessman. Though his father never drank, explained Romney, he always kept various kinds of alcohol in the house for his guests who did drink. That was meant to satisfy those who worried that he would somehow (I’m not sure how) impose his beliefs on others. Dad didn’t, he explained, so everyone could rely on him too. In a way this story is similar to the cake baking issue that we’ve seen in the news lately. A Christian baker believes that two men getting married is a sin so he won’t support that by baking their wedding cake. Some bakers decide that, even though they believe that they will. Romney’s dad didn’t believe people should drink, but he provided alcohol for those who do.
So how do we judge those who hold religious beliefs but don’t live by them?
That’s complicated. In the case of bakers and boozers it seems to me that they don’t lose much by baking the cake or serving a drink. On the other hand when I think of my own strongly held beliefs I feel like I would lose something if I broke them or helped others to break them. Think about one of your own. Let’s take adultery for example. Let’s say you would never do that. Ever. Not only that but you believe that it is a terrible thing to do. Your friend wants to have an affair and asks if they can use your apartment as a meet up place for them and their mistress. You say “no”. Not only “no” but “hell no”.
It’s reasonable for us to think about a president and what they might or might not do with all that power. Religion, at its best, is to act in service of people but since there is so much disagreement some people feel they should be able to force that. But when they don’t stand up for their own beliefs we call them hypocrites. It’s all so very complicated. I was about to say “confusing” but it’s not. I understand it. It isn’t confusing, it’s complex.
I think it is that complexity, as well as the freedom to believe what you want, that is behind the Constitution’s regulations on the subject. Don’t control people’s religion, don’t control the government based on religion, don’t force someone to be religious to take office, don’t force them not to be religious to take office. Keep religion out of it.
When I say that I mean on the part of the government, not the people.
When you enter the voting booth the choice you make is up to you. If you make that choice on the religion you follow so be it. All that is very personal. I suppose likewise it is very personal if a judge rules based on their religion and not on the law. The Constitution says that the Senate cannot use religion as a test for confirming a justice to the Supreme Court. Likely, they will anyway because that is part of human nature and part of religion. It takes an incredible restraint for a person to be honest about their own biases and work through this conversation in their own head and define that line for themselves. I have no easy answers on how to make that mental struggle work out for you. I can only tell you that if you do it right, it will be painful. That is why many people, perhaps most, avoid having it. It’s easier to just move in one direction.
The separation of church and state is incredibly important because the power we’re discussing is so powerful. The power of religion, the power of choice, and the power of government can all swing like a sword at the head of liberty. While intermingling is unavoidable it is wise to limit it and to recognize that not everyone follows one religion and even if they did they wouldn’t follow it perfectly. Forcing them doesn’t change any of that as forcing them is an illusion of compliance.
Donald Trump’s potential candidate for Supreme Court justice and many of her immediate family members are members of in a controversial religious group that asks members to take a lifetime loyalty ‘covenant’, encourages female submission to their husbands, and helped inspire publication of The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel about theocratic government.