Ever since I can remember, I’ve heard about the “separation of church and state” that is supposed to exist in our county, like buzzwords imprinted on my mind since elementary school. As a religious minority, I’ve always taken immense pride living in a country that respects all religious faiths and doesn’t press one religion on its citizens.

But on Inauguration Day, I watched President Obama place his hands on two Bibles and ask God to help him preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. He declared our freedom to be a gift from God. He said we must see each other and ourselves as equals as God sees us and that we must protect the planet that was commanded to our care by God.

Obama certainly isn’t the first president to seek and see God’s involvement in the country’s affairs. Abraham Lincoln considered the American Civil War as God’s punishment for America’s enslavement of millions. Harry Truman saw America’s fight against communism as a fight against “a tyranny led by a small group who have abandoned their faith in God,” and President Eisenhower believed that democracy “makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious belief.”

That’s the problem with buzzwords like “separation of church and state.” They imply a simplicity to issues that are anything but. They imply that we live in a world of black and white when we actually spend almost all of our lives in various grey areas.

On one hand, we are a religious nation. A recent Pew Research Center study showed that over 80 percent of Americans consider themselves religious and 73 percent consider themselves Christians. It’s only natural that our public life is going to reflect the values of such overwhelming majorities.

On the other hand, the number of people that don’t associate with an organized religion is growing rapidly, especially among younger Americans. The same Pew Research Center study showed that almost 20 percent of Americans consider themselves atheists, agnostics, or religiously unaffiliated, known collectively as “nones.”

The tricky part, the grey area if you will, is finding a balance that satisfies our predominantly religious population and the growing number of unaffiliated Americans, while also respecting the religious restrictions of the First Amendment.

For example, should we establish regular school-sponsored prayer in public schools? Wouldn’t exposing children to Christian values like fidelity, charity, and forgiveness through daily prayer in school help raise the best possible people and citizens?

I strongly believe that we need to be raising more morally conscious students, but I don’t think putting prayer into public schools is the answer. Our national moral crisis goes much deeper than a simple lack of piety, and it’s going to take more than giving kids the chance to pray in school to fix it.

There is nothing wrong with schools trying to raise the moral character of their students. Teachers, administrators, and coaches are in a unique position to act as moral role models for their students, and they should be encouraged to take advantage of this opportunity.

But when all kids – whether they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Atheistic, Agnostic, or simply have no clue – are required to attend school, it’s unfair to force them to either pray or be seen as outcasts by their classmates.

However, there’s no reason that students shouldn’t be encouraged to make faith a part of their school lives. My high school had large populations of Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and all three faiths had thriving student organizations that allowed their members to discuss their beliefs with their classmates. These types of organizations made it possible for religion to be a part of students’ school days without putting non-believing or non-practicing students in an awkward situation.

In an ideal world, these groups would do more than just bring students of the same faith together. They could open their doors to people of all faiths, believers and non-believers alike. Not only would this increase our knowledge and appreciation of each other and our differing beliefs, it would allow students to learn the valuable lessons that faith and religion have to offer.

The presence of God in President Obama’s inaugural address doesn’t bother me. If his faith in God spurs him to seek answers for our country’s problems, I’m all for it. The task we all must undertake is how to benefit from this natural presence of religion while at the same time safeguarding our legacy as a country founded on religious freedom, tolerance, and respect for all.

15 Comments

  1. Kris Katarian

    Ryan, I’m glad that you are proud of living in a “country that respects all religious faiths and doesn’t press one religion on its citizens.” You have a more generous nature than me on this topic. I believe that one religion is pressed on our citizens. How many times have you heard America (inaccurately) described as a “Christian nation”? While the U.S. government does not explicity force Christianity upon us, many states are proposing, and passing, bills that are a direct reflection of certain Christian beliefs. If passed, these laws are imposed upon everyone in those states, not just those who are Christians. Religious faith should not create/influence public policy.

    Most Christians whom I’ve met are good people who do good things. As you said, fidelity, charity and forgiveness are admirable qualities, and good for society. It doesn’t mean that those values can only be taught by Christianity. The “religious unaffilitated” are also people who can do the right thing. The reason, whether religious or otherwise, is not as important as the act. That is worthy of much more recognition than it gets.

    As a Deist, I find the notion of “needing to put God back in our schools” absurd. Since Deists believe that God is already in everything and everyone, He/She/It is already there. What such people really mean is, “My interpretation of God needs to be put back in schools.”

  2. William R. Dickson

    I don’t think the phrase can be dismissed as buzzwords when it was coined by Jefferson, who authored the Virginia Statute that served as the model for the First Amendment, to describe the intended effect of the first amendment, and paraphrased by Madison as well in explaining its goals.

    Quite simply, “satisfying our predominantly religious population” is, or at least should be, irrelevant to the state.

    Regarding the nomination, John Quincy Adams got it right: a deeply religious man, he was sworn in with his hand on a book of laws, sending a clear signal that his duty was to the human laws of the land, not to the writings of an ancient society.

  3. Thanks for the reads and comments Kris and William!

    Kris – I certainly agree that there are those out there who believe or wish that America was truly a Christian nation and that they try to govern accordingly. I don’t condone this in the least. The foundation of the First Amendment is to ensure that religion doesn’t play a role in the creation of public policy. However, while we don’t consider ourselves a Christian nation, we are a nation made up of a large majority of Christians and it’s naive to believe that we can hide this. My goal and hope is to find a way to use this natural inclusion of religion in the best possible way while maintaining our fidelity to the First Amendment.

    William – the reason I referred to Mr. Jefferson’s quote as “buzzwords” was because I think they imply a simplicity to the relationship between religion and public life in our country that I don’t believe exists. I wish that there was a simple, concrete separation between state affairs and religious affairs in America. I just don’t think that’s possible. When I talk about “satisfying our religious population,” my goal is to recognize the unavoidable presence of religion in our public lives and find ways to utilize that presence to the benefit of all people. Ideally, these minor and unavoidable concessions would convince lawmakers that they don’t need to inject their religious views into public policy (although I’m not confident).

    This is a very difficult topic that is often painted in black and white. I think that does a disservice to the conversation, and I tried to highlight a bit of the grey area with this article.

  4. Kris Katarian

    I have to agree with William that trying to satisfy our predominantly religious population should be irrelevant to the state. They are already overindulged to the detriment of other belief/nonbelief systems in our country. The far right Christian extremist evangelicals are determined to make America a theocracy. Just take a good look at The Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Center, two ultraconservative Christian organizations that push their beliefs into government.

    Sorry, but I don’t want to accommodate any religion in any official capacity. I don’t consider the Constitutional separation between government and religion as having grey areas.

  5. There’s a significant difference, I think, between conceding that religion currently enjoys an unconstitutionally privileged position in our society, and resigning ourselves to accepting that it must always be so.

  6. William R. Dickson

    Anywhere government resources (property, time, funds, whatever) are used to promote a religious viewpoint. Crosses on public land, prayer banners in schools, bibles used in official capacities, exemptions from taxes and laws that apply to nonreligious individuals and organizations. “In God We Trust” on our money, “under god” in our pledge.

    All these things can be changed in time — but not if we volunteer to accommodate existing privilege rather than fighting it.

  7. That’s fair enough. I certainly get uncomfortable when public money goes towards religious items. I thought about touching on it in this article but felt that a few paragraphs wouldn’t do the topic justice. Spending tax dollars on religiously-tied programs and organizations could be a whole article in and of itself involving volunteer/good works programs, religious schools, and tax exemptions. Again I find it a grey area as there are some organizations, such as those that help the needy, that I wouldn’t want to see denied federal assistance automatically based off their religious status. I do not know a ton about money and religion so I will certainly not pass myself off as any type of expert of the topic.

    In the end, I take less issue with things like “In God We Trust” and “under God.” It may be because they have always been there or that I am in general a laid back person who is difficult to offend, but I believe that these issues don’t cause a lot of harm to society or directly challenge the Constitution. I think that our time and resources are better spent fighting blatant attempts to introduce dogma and doctrine into our laws.

  8. Whoops! Hit post too soon there.

    Anyway, both of those phrases, and their injection into our government, are deliberate statements that carry a strong and intentional value message: theism good and American, atheism bad and communist-like. This is a statement that a secular government has no business making at the expense of any of its citizens.

    It’s not the phrases that are offensive — it’s the fact that they are used in an official capacity that is offensive.

  9. That’s a valid point. I tend to believe that the anti-communist connotation is not as much a part of the phrases 50 or 60 years later but I can certainly see how those phrases, as innocuous as they seem to most, could cut deep for an atheist who sees their government tacitly endorsing something they don’t believe.

  10. As it often is, the case of Jessica Ahlquist in Cranston, RI is instructive. Many people asked how the prayer banner was hurting her, and why she couldn’t just not look at it. But to the unprivileged minority, that sign, like our money and like our pledge, is a constant, repetitive statement that says, in effect, “you are not one of us.”

    And when a Cranston Rabbi asked members of her synagogue whether they had ever been bothered by the banner in the years (sometimes decades earlier) that they had attended the school, a fair number of them (she declined to be specific) said that yes, it had bothered them, and it had bothered their parents, but they had all been afraid to speak up about it.

    Things often seem innocuous to the privileged group :).

  11. Kelsey Gillespy

    Wow, I am ashamed that I’m so late to this really great discussion! I just wanted to throw in a word or two: First of all, I agree with Kris in that fidelity, charity, and forgiveness are not exclusive to Christianity. I know atheists and agnostics that promote those values and I would assume people of most religions would agree that those are morals to be upheld.

    Secondly, and piggy-backing off my first point, I agree with you, Ryan, that we need more and better role models. If everyone (or most people) would agree that fidelity, charity, and forgiveness are good, where are the role models who back those statements up with their lives? For example, a Christian and an agnostic may have separate reasons why they think those qualities are important and would have differing motivational factors behind why they live them out. But the fact of the matter is that they both believe those values to be…well, valuable. It doesn’t necessarily need to be publicized WHY they live them out, but it is necessary that they live them out. And, for the most part, I don’t think people do. After all, if fidelity and forgiveness were universally lived out, would the divorce rate be so high?

    Thirdly, I grew up in St. Louis and perhaps this doesn’t happen there or maybe I was just totally oblivious to it, but during my experience with public schools, we never had prayer or prayer banners or anything of the sort. If anything, they went out of their way to include every nationality and religion of its students. It wasn’t until I chose to go to a Catholic school that I first experienced prayer and religion in a school setting.

    Lastly, wrdickson, I can understand your frustrations about living in a society that upholds different beliefs than yours. I’m sure it’s incredibly difficult to satisfy a vast population with equally vast beliefs, but what do you propose would be the solution to all of your frustrations?

  12. Secularism is the solution. Total separation of church and state. No “under god” in the Pledge (frankly, it’s worth discussing whether there should be a Pledge at all, but that’s another topic), no “in god we trust” on currency. No prayer banners or portraits of Jesus on the walls of public schools. No public money used to support religious institutions. No special treatment for churches in the tax code; they should be treated as any other nonprofit. No laws passed based on religious beliefs. No opening prayers at town council meetings. Etc.

    Referring back to the Ahlquist case as an example, many religious people mistakenly believe that secularism is antireligious — they argued that removing the prayer banner was an endorsement of atheism. This is, of course, not the case. Putting up a banner that read, “there are no gods” would not be OK; that would violate the wall of separation. But having no banner at all is neutral and secular.

    There is a real “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” attitude about government among many religious people and groups: if the state isn’t actively promoting their religious beliefs, then they feel it is opposed to them. Teaching people what secularism means is a big part of the job.

    For a good idea of the issues involved, follow the work of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. They’re at au.org, and on Twitter @americansunited.

  13. Ryan –

    “Separation of church and state” is not a buzz phrase gleaned from a single letter. It is how the Supreme Court has interpreted the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment. You may believe that the “wall of separation” is a bad metaphor, as do I, but it is the ideal of this nation.

    Just because the President of the United States swears in the name of his god does not say anything more than a personal statement. The Constitution’s Article 2, Section 1, clause 8 states:

    Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:–”I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” There is no constitutional requirement that the oath of president, the only oath written out in the Constitution, to swear upon any deity.

    The issue of Separation of Church and State has been simplified by the “Lemon Test” and the Courts continuous position that if there is a perception of governmental support of a religion, that support is a constitutional violation.

    The line between the secular and sectarian is thin and sometimes muddled, but the Constitution is exacting in its writing of the First and Fourteenth amendments: The government, all governments of the United States from local to national, cannot support a specific religion, but allows the individuals to associate with those whose faiths are the same. Thus you are permitted to be a “religiously secular yet culturally Jewish,” while I can remain an atheist.

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