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"America has two great dominant strands of political thought - conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barriers that should never have been erected." -- Bill Clinton, Dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library, November 2004

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Tuesday, November 18, 2003


Taking On the Church-State Divide

posted by Dana at Tuesday, November 18, 2003 permalink View blog reactions
One great thing about this campaign is that we can openly discuss subjects that used to be only mentioned inside locked rooms, maybe over cigars, bourbon or very bad coffee.

The “gay marriage” issue is one such question. Because the religious term “marriage” is attached, many religions see it as a threat to their liberty. The Vermont solution, civil unions, is a compromise between the needs of faith to choose what to sanctify, and the needs of the state to give all citizens equal rights.

Another such question is Roy Moore and the “10 Commandments” issue. It has taken off like a house of fire throughout the South. Some are suggesting that Democrats write off the South as a result.

In his “Confederate flag gaffe” (which wasn’t), Howard Dean was saying that we need to address southern whites on economic issues. They’re being taken for suckers, fed symbols, slogans, and red meat hate. This yokes them to a system that gives them no security, no insurance, no education, and which turns their best-and-brightest into cannon fodder in a “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.”

Gay marriage and The Commandment “issue” are both manifestations of the same problem, the separation of Church and State. Must faith turn its rules into state law? Must the state endorse church teachings? I think Dean needs to confront it squarely. Here’s one modest proposal for doing that. I borrowed the Doctor’s voice for the occasion:

The question is one of government endorsing religion. But the question must be asked, why is America the most religious country in the world today? Every survey shows more Americans practice sincere faith than the people of any other nation.

The reason is the First Amendment. The reason is that the state and faith are separate.

Let’s ask the Founders for guidance. Let’s ask James Madison, considered the Constitution’s truest father, co-author of the Federalist Papers, fourth President of the United States. Here is what he said:

Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?

During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.

As it was in Madison’s time, so it is in ours. Young people in Iran increasingly reject Islam because, they say, the Mullahs are corrupt and control the state. In Europe, both Catholic and Protestant, young people no longer believe because, they say, their churches are corrupted by the state. Even here, when religious sects have gained political power, they have immediately started suppressing believers in other faiths.

The lesson is clear. When a church gains the power of the state it becomes the state, and in that moment it loses all its holiness.

Thus we have the First Amendment, the very first bill the U.S. Congress passed, and still its greatest achievement. What is its first line? Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.

Thus, our religious liberty is absolute. But in exchange no faith may hold power over others. We are free to open Congress with a prayer, free to swear on a Bible in court, but we may not establish one religion, no matter how popular, over others.

Why is this true? It is because religion comes from the heart. And religion is always changing. Since our nation’s founding we have had many “Great Awakenings,” which have resulted in the creation of faiths that didn’t exist in 1787. Southern Baptists, Mormons, Unitarians – they didn’t exist at the time of the Founders. Instead men and women were left free to create them, to build them, to teach them to their children. And those children in turn were free to accept it, reject it or change it.

I believe in the 10 Commandments. But I can’t make you believe in them. I can’t force anyone to believe in them. For religion to mean anything you must be free to believe or disbelieve.

Imposing the 10 Commandments, or any religious document, on everyone in a state is establishing one religious faith above others. It is not defending faith, it is not a testament to faith, it is a debasement of faith.

This is why I signed the Civil Unions bill. Churches must be free to choose who and how they marry. They cannot be forced to sanctify any marriage that violates their teachings. But the state cannot allow Second Class Citizenship. We can’t be divided by race, we can’t be divided by faith, we can’t be divided by sex, and we can’t be divided based on what is in our hearts. So our state has a civil way to give all its citizens the rights to inherit, to share benefits, to share burdens, and to make their way together.

We impose faith on no one. But no one may force their faith on everyone, either.

True faith demands liberty. True faith demands the choice. Those who seek to impose faith on you seek to imprison you inside their choices. They are sincere, they are righteous, they are well-meaning, these are good men and women.

They are also wrong. They were wrong in Madison’s time. They are wrong in our time.

We cannot impose this view on any American. We are free, as Americans, to hold wrong views, to believe wrong things, even to believe in things others see as evil. That is the choice freedom brings. It is also what freedom demands, that we give freedom to others.

Roy Moore is free to believe. Those who are fighting equality are free to fight it. They are free to try and impose their faith on everyone in the United States.

But freedom also demands responsibility. With the freedoms of the Constitution comes the responsibility to defend it. Even from men and women of faith. That is what we shall do. We shall fight them in the courts, we shall fight them in the legislatures, we shall fight them at the ballot box. We will defend the Constitution with all our hearts.

We will never surrender.


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Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.