One reason why the separation of church and state is a good idea is that uniting religion and politics tends to do more harm to both than either could self-inflict on its own. Indeed, many of the early settlers in America were people who came here to escape from the Christian nations of Europe, which is why the very first amendment in the Bill of Rights contains a prohibition against government establishment of religion. But the same phenomenon applies on a smaller scale as well, and the current woes of the Republican party may be a case in point.
I remember the last major crisis in the Republican party. I had just turned old enough to vote when President Nixon resigned in disgrace over the fallout from the Watergate break-ins. It was a toxic time to be a Republican, and there were those who wondered if the party itself could ever regain the respect and support it had lost. But another element was rising to power, led by Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson (or at least those are the three who made the biggest impression on me at the time). The “Moral Majority” had arrived.
It was, you should pardon the expression, a marriage made in heaven: conservative Christians got access to the political power they craved, and conservative Republicans got back the moral respectability they’d lost under Nixon. For a while things were going great, and in an astonishingly short time, conservatives found themselves back in control again. But the seeds of future problems were being sown even then.
The thing about True Believers is that they value a particular narrative above almost everything else. Believers have a seemingly boundless capacity for rewarding those who most convincingly deceive them (as any number of multimillionaire faith healers demonstrate). Combine this with the promise-me-anything atmosphere of the political arena, and you have a recipe for a system that produces leaders whose power is based on loyalty to dogma rather than on actual performance and effectiveness.
In the early days of the union, this was a strength: believers united in large numbers around the new-found champions of their religious ideals. But the disconnect between faith and facts set the stage for leaders who were (and are) out of touch with the realities of government. Criticism of religious programs and policies is apostasy, unforgivable. Staying in power means getting good at denial, rationalization, scapegoating, and projection. And since these techniques are more adept at manipulating emotions than at resolving actual problems, the result is a leadership that becomes increasingly out of touch the more time goes by, leaving the real problems unaddressed, and often unacknowledged.
Eventually, believers begin to turn on one another. By promoting a common core of religious beliefs within the party, believers inadvertently level their own playing field, and prospective leaders have to adopt increasingly extreme positions in order to distinguish themselves from the competition. And these extremes end up being even more out-of-touch with reality than the mainstream religious party view, and thus less effective at dealing with real-world problems, taking the party even further into its downward spiral.
This all seems far too simplistic and trite to be a genuine, real-world description of actual political dynamics. And yet, I look at the current presidential campaign, and I see all the people who have moved their minds into some kind of political space where Obama is a Muslim socialist, and gays are trying to destroy “traditional marriage,” and the economy just needs to shift more money into the bank accounts of the already extravagantly wealthy. The common thread is an overwhelming preference for belief over evidence, and faith over fact. Or in other words, religion.
I take issue with your assertion that
For one thing, the real reason the Puritans and the Pilgrims came to America was to establish their own pocket theocracies. The religious laws of the Massachusetts colony were far more repressive than those of Emgland. It may be more accurate when you consider the Quakers, who actually practised tolerance, but when you’re talking about people who turned their religious dissenters out to starve in the wilderness, “freedom” is not the word that comes to mind.
Consider also that the colonies had state-sanctioned churches, and that Baptists in Virginia could be jailed for practicing their faith without a license (even after the revolution). The amendment concerning freedom of religion was not passed so much out of a feeling of tolerance but out of a fear that the wrong denomination get the upper hand of endorsement. Better to have a Jewish, Mahometan or even (shudder) Catholic legislator than let the damned Congregationalists get the upper hand.
Finally, what we call the First Amendment is actually the Third Amendment. When the Bill of Rights was first proposed, it had twelve articles; the first dealt with apportionment of representatives in congress and was never passed; technically, it is still pending and could be approved. The second amendment dealt with congressional pay raises, and, in a landmark of do-nothingness, was eventially ratified and enacted in 1992 as the 27th amendmenent. Three other amendments, proposed in 1819, 1864 and 1924, are still technically pending; it has since become customary to include language in each proposed amendment to have the motion expire after seven years.
Isn’t it funny that those who were once repressed don’t remember how awful that repression was, but instead, as soon as they get the chance, they seem to think ‘now it’s our turn’: sort of like modern Israel.
Steve R says
I’ve been saying for years that whenever you find people organizing to protest some injustice, only a small minority are interested in rectifying the injustice. The rest want to invert it. Anyone who says that the law should be color-blind is now called a racist.
M, Supreme Anarch of the Queer Illuminati says
Anyone who says that the law in its entirety should be “color-blind” is pursuing an approach that would make it impossible to deal with existing structural racism. Regardless of intent, the effect of “law must be color-blind, and that’s the end of the story” would be horrendously racist. And generally, people who support policies with horrendously racist effects tend to be the ones to most aggressively and inaccurately oppose efforts to reduce structural racism…
Deacon Duncan says
Oh, absolutely. It’s not that everyone who came here necessarily wanted a secular government. The point is, whatever they may have been seeking, they came here to get away from the Christian nations of Europe. Even the ones who approved of the union of church and state perceived the existing states as failures, despite the fact that many of them had been mingling Christianity and government for upwards of a millennium. It’s going on 2,000 years now, and in all that time not one attempt at uniting church and state has ended up improving either. Those who came here seeking to set up theocracies came here to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Yup. We need another Diet of Worms!!
“This all seems far too simplistic and trite to be a genuine, real-world description of actual political dynamics.”
Yeah,. If you had told 1o years ago that this level of bizzarro-land could have emerged completely unchecked, I would have lumped you in with the other conspiracy theorists. All this stuff is going to cause some serious WTF moments when we all wake up from this incredibly stran nightmare. I imagine in the same way most germans woke up after WWII was over. This is what they mean by ‘slippery slope’
Also, the GOP is killing Christianity. The more closely people (especially young people) associate religion with right-wing political policies, the more turned off many of them get to the whole thing.
Not a bad result in my view, of course. But a costly one.
“After God had carried us safe to New England and wee had builded our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, rear’d convenient places for God’s worship, and settled the civil government: One of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.”
Ah, to advance learning as an actual ambition of churches and their ministers.
Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant) says
It’s a situation that’s painful to watch. The parasite has taken over the host so completely that killing the host is taking its toll on the parasite, but now neither one can remove the other without serious damage to both of them.
Is there any point in dialogue with the muslim socialist brand of tea party republicans? A friend of a friend who firmly belongs in that category recently added me on Facebook, and out of curiosity I’ve tried engaging him a few times on various issues that he posts about. He seems to view government as a sliding scale between libertarianism and serfdom under the USSR, so he seems to view any deviation from his ideal vision of government as just one more step towards economic ruin, overt religious suppression and persecution, etc.
Anyone have any ideas? He’s obviously not a big fan of Romney either, but sees him as an extremely large step in the right direction over “the Marxist Messiah” (so criticism of things like Reaganomics seems futile). I’m still having fun with him, but I expect I’ll get tired of it eventually (as I did with debating creationists).
What are some of the strongest arguments for active government intervention in reducing poverty over the libertarian proposal? Any good historical essays or studies?
Don’t even bother with your friend. You can spend hours and hours doing research and providing links to back up what you say and it will be a waste of time. More than likely the links won’t be looked at, and will be rebutted with junk from World Net Daily or The Blaze. Been there and done that myself, and have been defriended over doing that. Facts have a liberal bias, or to quote one I heard from a “True Believer” last night: “Facts are what you have to use when you don’t want to admit the truth.”
I recognize that, but I think it’s been more for my own education (and curiosity/boredom) than it in actually trying to teach him anything. Economics and sociology are both subjects that I’ve just recently started trying to get a handle on, so I’ve been learning a lot through the process.
Reading economics makes me lean towards fiscal conservatism, but reading sociology makes me lean back the other way. Reality is very messy, neither of those are hard sciences, and it seems like there are many many things to have honest debates about where the two intersect. I’m trying to find people that are actually having them and not just spitting politicized one-liners at each other, because I think that’s where I belong.
Pierce R. Butler says
For a human-based view of modern economics: start with Paul Krugman, Dean Baker & Barbara Ehrenreich.
For economics and institutional politics: he’s not the complete answer, but you can’t see the big picture without some Noam Chomsky.
“which is why the very first amendment in the Bill of Rights contains a prohibition against government establishment of religion.”
Actually, the First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
This language prohibits a government establishment of religion (or the establishment of a state religion, which is a position adopted by many theists who want the government to fund their personal religion since, hey!, it’s not a state religion!) but it does a lot more than that.
It prohibits the government from supported established religions. The word “establishment” has more than one meaning.
Theists would have you believe that the founding fathers mean #3 from the definition above: the act of establishing a religion. But really, they mean #1 in the definition: any organization that has been established.
It would have been simple to write “Congress shall write no law establishing a state religion” but that is not what is written. The language “respecting an establishment of religion” implies a good deal more than that. Why “an” and not “the”? Because it was meant to apply to the several religions existing at the time.
Arguments from history and science are useless. Religion is about tribal identity, and controlling people, not ethics. In america, it’s a business. It’s the business of propping up the elites, (who don’t care) and keeping the rubes happy and hating the libruls.
Although I agree with most of this post, there is another side to this issue. I also see a quasi-religious dogma of the liberal left in play. They have an ideology where you can’t criticise minorities, women, LGBT, environmentalists (notice I didn’t say environmental science), and whatever other pet causes they have. This makes the Democrats suck just as much as the Republicans do.
Deacon Duncan says
You’re right. Political affiliation is no guarantee of immunity to religious thinking. Everybody, right or left, needs to apply actual thought, and not just let religious or quasi-religious stereotypes make their decisions for them.
Pardon my language, but what the hell are you talking about? What parallel universe did you come from where Democrats are not allowed to “criticize” any of those topics? Have you not witnessed the last 30 years where the way for a Democrat to get ahead in the party is to pick one of those supposedly “sacred cows” and use it as a punching bag? There’s even a term for it – a “Sistah Souljah Moment”.
This is the worst kind of knee-jerk “both sides do it” attitude – the kind that isn’t actually true and is obviously debunkable with a moment’s worth of thought.
Deacon Duncan leads off with “One reason why the separation of church and state is a good idea is that uniting religion and politics tends to do more harm to both than either could self-inflict on its own.
I’d add that uniting atheism and radical feminism also tends to do more harm to both than either could self-inflict on its own.
Deacon Duncan says
That’s easy: don’t unite atheism with radical feminism. Just take the A+ approach and work on eliminating the harassment and sexism that unfairly burden women in atheism.
Brian M says
My reaction to a post is immediately “skeptical” when it uses the bete noir term “radical feminist”.
Ronald Reagan, or at least the people who were pulling his strings, invited religious conservaives into the party with a lot of promises they never had any intention of keeping. Unfortunately, or not depending on your point of view, once the Pat Robertson/Jerry Falwell crowd got a taste of political power, they stayed on to co-opt the GOP, and America has been paying the price ever since.
Corvus illustris says
Juxtaposing the fact that Massachusetts was just another theocracy with a mention of the Quakers is an ironic reminder that between 1659 and 1661 Massachusetts hanged four Quakers for their beliefs.
Anglicanism in Virginia was established in exactly the same sense as in the Mother Country, not merely sanctioned, so going after Dissenters was par for the course. Things got better in England around 1779–possibly as a reaction to turmoil in the Colonies.
Pierce R. Butler says
Things got better in England around 1779–possibly as a reaction to turmoil in the Colonies.
Then they got worse, particularly for Catholics (look up “Gordon riots”, 1789) – possibly as a reaction to turmoil in France.
I’ve always wondered why religious people tend to be republicans while non-religious folk tend to be democrats. I’m often tempted to think it’s just smart versus stupid, but I suppose that would be an oversimplification.
Before Nixon, was religiosity spread evenly across the political arena, or were republicans always more religious than dems?
the artist formerly known as round guy says
Remember that Jimmy Carter was (and is) an openly evangelical Christian. I always found it odd that so many Christians were eager to toss him aside for Reagan, who professed belief but didn’t really act on it.
I certainly remember religiously minded people being spread much more widely through both parties prior to 1980, especially back when fundies still hated openly on Catholics (before they made common ground hating gays and abortion). Think Kennedy in 1960….
“Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know I’ve tried to deal with them.”
— Barry Goldwater.
Yes, for all his faults, Goldwater was prescient:
“When you say “radical right” today, I think of these moneymaking ventures by fellows like Pat Robertson and others who are trying to take the Republican Party away from the Republican Party, and make a religious organization out of it. If that ever happens, kiss politics goodbye.”
WAPO interview, 1994