There’s an old saying, “There are three things you should never talk about in polite company – politics, money and religion.” I think that applies to avoiding an argument. Well, sometimes the argument must be made.
Politicians have used religion to divide and conquer for millennia. The Egyptians used it, the Mayans, the Jews, the Romans (especially the Romans) all used religion to pit their masses against one another. Why? For the same reason they pit races or classes against one another. If you and I are arguing in the living room we are a lot less likely to notice someone rifling through the upstairs rooms. Politicians are always rifling through the upstairs rooms. Always.
Now in America we are free to worship (or not) as we believe. I believe that while the 2nd Amendment is by far the most important (more on that later) in the Bill of Rights, I think the 1st Amendment is the most beautiful. It is the essence of what American freedom is all about.
You decide your beliefs; you decide how to express those beliefs and no one in the government can ever tell you what to believe or how to believe it. That’s beautiful. Remember, America was the first nation in the history of civilization to grant mankind that freedom.
If I want to walk into the middle of the US Capital building and say a prayer I have every right to do so. Even though I may pray to a different deity than the head of the Capital Hill Police or the Director of the FBI I am still free to pray. I can pray to Jesus or Allah or Yahweh or John Travolta or the Environment or surf boards. I choose who, what, where and when I practice my beliefs. The government cannot limit that freedom.
Now if in the practice of my beliefs I deny someone else the practice of theirs then I have hit the only boundary to my 1st Amendment rights. Say if my belief tells me that I should take a crowbar to a Shintoist, I have reached that boundary. The best example of the limits of any of our constitutional rights is the common legal standard, “Your right to swing your fist ends at my nose.”
Now it is at this point that someone is going to want to inject “separation of church and state.” After all the US Constitution mandates that separation right? Absolutely wrong. Separation of church and state is not a law in this country. That phrase appears nowhere in any law and never has. So why do we think of it as a founding principal? Ignorance born of deliberate misinformation.
Most historians agree that it’s origin lies in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists in 1802 where he explained that the 1st Amendment created a “wall of separation between the church and the state.” It’s a metaphor, not a law.
So what exactly did old Tommy J mean? Well luckily he made it crystal clear in the following words, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . .” There is nothing ambiguous about that definition. Let’s break it down.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. This was in response to the Church of England. For centuries the Vatican had forced European monarchs to adhere to Papal law. Henry the 8th was constantly wanting to change wives whenever he grew tired of one. Rome frowned on this, refusing to annul his marriages.
Henry grew tired of this and broke with the Catholic Church and formed the Church of England with himself as it’s supreme head. Having the same person at the helm of both the government and the church went so well that eventually a rag tag group of English citizens revolted forming a new nation known as the United States of America. Having the same guy determining whether a person has sinned also being in charge of who gets taxed was a terrible idea thus Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. Government cannot force you to follow any religious belief you don’t want to.
For the second part, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, that one is easily as lucid. The government is forbidden by law from preventing you from worshiping as you see fit. That means any judge who tells you you cannot pray before a football is wrong. In actuality it is illegal for them to say that. That judge is guilty of violating your constitutional rights.
The 1st Amendment is also there to prevent the church from unduly influencing the making of laws. The church does have as much right as any other person or entity to lobby and to voice its desire for legislation but it has no more right.
The 1st Amendment is also in place to prevent the kind of unholy alliances like the one Pulitzer Prize winning author Franck McCourt documented in his autobiography ‘Tis. During the great Irish immigration around the turn of the last century boats were greeted by a priest who promised guaranteed work and housing for any Irishman who pledged his allegiance to the Catholic Church, the Unions and the Democratic Party. The priest also warned that there would be no work or boarding for anyone who did not agree to join all three groups. That isn’t just unconstitutional it ventures into treason.
Now folks like the ACLU would lead you to believe that you do not have a right to pray in public but they are wrong. The Constitution guarantees you the right to pray whenever and wherever you want. And though it also assures you will never have to pray if you do not want to it does not say that you are free from witnessing others do it.
As long as they don’t try to force you to pray and you don’t do anything to prevent them from praying then everyone’s rights are fulfilled. It’s when one tries to impose their belief on the other that a crime is committed. I’m alright with that arrangement.