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The separation of church and state is a concept our society has held dear since its inception; well kind of. If that were generally the case then Pennsylvania would not have been particularly noted for its religious tolerance during the colonial period. But, I digress. When the original lawmakers were crafting the laws for this nation in respect to how to deal with religion in the public sphere, it is highly doubt it was intended to evolve into its current interpretation by many politicians and judges. What was stated as a separation of church and state, is increasingly becoming enforced as separation of church from state. So a very basic historical overview will now be revisited.
For most of human history, those at the top of political power would regularly declare themselves to also be the chief and final authority on all things religious. Many would in fact present themselves as gods and deities to be exclusively worshiped by their citizens and conquered peoples. Others would decree all people under their authority must worship a particular deity(s) and/or in the same manner as they did. It was very rare for there to have been a society where people believing different things about religion were tolerated. It was even rarer for there to be a place where there was not only toleration, but those belonging to the minority ways of believing were also entitled to the same rights and social mobility as the majority. Thus was the world the “founding fathers” were coming from.
Their intentional moves to separate church and state did not appear to be a referendum against religion, as much as on governments dictating what, how and if people should believe. Therefore, when any government proceeds to restrict the practice and observance of one’s religious activities, it is something they would have likewise disagreed with. They were not attempting to establish the ambiguous notion of some kind of religious neutrality we are familiar with today. Quite frankly, there really is not such a thing since whether you are a participant in a religion or reject religion altogether, there will always be something you prioritize as the final authority on how to treat others and what the purpose of life is; it just may not have an official deity or congregation associated with it.
This then brings us to the mess we have today. I have never been one to defend unjust and oppressive actions by people of my own faith towards those with whom we disagree. I do not believe Christian beliefs and values should be enforced by the state (the intention of the founders). Should laws we generally deem necessary and appropriate fall in line with scriptural teaching, I will take that. And for those (within or outside the church) unfamiliar with Jesus’ instructions regarding evangelizing to others, he told his disciples not to force or attempt to persuade anyone to believe. All they were to do was present what he told them and display the according actions in their own lives. He knew that true, life-long believing is never an issue of legality, intellectual debate, scientific evidence, emotional arousal, etc… but a change in our heart and corresponding actions. And he certainly did not encourage being disrespectful while disagreeing with others.
With that said, the founders would have likewise disapproved of a society attempting to outlaw and restrict religious expression in the public arena. At the end of the day, just because someone approves of things contrary to the bible or is an atheist, fails to disqualify them from being just as much of a zealot or fanatic as the most hardcore bible-thumper. The person pushing for religion and its expression to be outlawed, is no different than kings and emperors of old trying to conform everyone to their beliefs by threat of legal consequences.
I am not a fan of hypocrisy and do not believe trying to do so for well-intentioned reasons is any excuse. If someone wants acceptance of who they are and their lifestyle, they need to accept there will always be people who disapprove. Now if they use their authority or influence to harm others, that is discrimination; which should not be tolerated. But if someone merely expresses they do not agree with something and base it on their religious leanings, that is their right just as it is your right to disagree. To call someone intolerant or a bigot while taking legal measures to stifle and restrict their freedom to be such, is flat out hypocrisy.
As a black man with some educational background in history, I know all too well what discrimination looks like in both its overt and covert forms. But I would never be in favor of taking legal action against someone for making disparaging statements against black people. Of course I mean this within a certain context though. If a teacher does so in front of a classroom or employer does so in front of employees, this is different because they are using their power and position to do so before a relatively captive audience. But if someone on tv or in a magazine does so, I can choose to not support the networks and publications involved. If an establishment chooses not to serve me, I can always go somewhere else. What point is there in trying to sue them? It will not actually change the issue of what is in their heart. At that point it is just being spiteful and trying to find some way to limit their expression.
There is simply no such thing as “neutral” in regards to religious expression; though we pretend there is. Just because a song or movie does not prescribe to a certain religion, does not mean it is neutral. If they promote ideas and values contrary to someone’s faith, it clearly is not neutral to those people. But yet, we are foraging further and further into a legal landscape in which we assert someone’s faith can be separated from how they approach…well everything. If someone takes office, they can somehow set aside their beliefs once elected and do what is neutral (note: I am talking about sincere beliefs, not the ones they say just to get elected). If someone is a scientist, their faith should not have any affect on how they process information. But the truth is, what we believe (or do not believe) will always affect how we think, act and respond.
So if we are going to push for tolerance, this means we must also tolerate those who do not tolerate our beliefs and lifestyles. Denying them their right to do so is merely becoming a dictator after ousting the previous leadership for the same reasons.
By Corey Dorsey