It's a measure of my slow-wittedness that it has taken so long for me to put this together.
Several weeks back on Pop Culture America with John and Dave on blogtalkradio.com -- heard now every Saturday at its new time, 3PM Eastern! -- when our guest was Steven Waldman, author of Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America, our discussion led past the Pop Culture into one of the most important issues of the day: the separation of church and state. One of the things I love about conversing on these seemingly light, trivial topics is how often they can transform into serious, meaningful ideas.
One of our insightful listeners (you guys are a smart bunch!) called in and asked a perfectly reasonable, intelligent question; really, it's the only question worth asking. Regarding those (like me) who insist on keeping religion separate from government, he asked, "What are they so afraid of?"
At the time, I responded with some half-baked incoherence about steamrollering personal freedom, which is sort of it, but not very well expressed.
If you'd be so kind as to indulge me, I'd like to take another crack at answering that crucial question.
In this country, when we talk about separation of church and state, we are 99.9999% likely to be talking about separation of state and Christianity. There's very little momentum currently in the U. S. of Archie to instill the wisdom of Shiva the Destroyer in our public square. More's the pity.
To the orthodoxly Christian, what is separation from Christianity? It is, at best, an unfortunate error, at worst, willful wickedness. When you've got all the answers about how the universe works and how people should behave within it, what is freedom but the right to be wrong?
What then would such a one say about a country founded on the notion of freedom, of personal liberty?
For the orthodox, personal liberty is merely the opportunity to stray from the path of all that is good and righteous. Why should that be allowed? Why should it even be tolerated? What benefit will a society glean from permitting such behavior, such thought?
Isn't it then the proper place of a society to restrict such behavior? And more, to direct its citizens to the correct way of thinking and acting?
That's what society as shaped by the orthodox would look like. It's not some far-fetched, whimsical notion. There have been plenty of governments in the history of our planet that cheerfully incorporated religion as part of civic authority. There are plenty today.
I don't want to live in any of them. Past or present. Or future.
Conservatives and Christians (redundant?) are fond of pointing out that our nation was founded by men who were steeped in Christianity. They are quite correct; the least religious of our founding fathers was most likely more religious than the average church-goer today. And it was these devout men who structured a government that specifically prohibited its lawmakers from establishing any religion as part of its authority. It wasn't sad, godless heathens like me. It was men who were more devout than you are. All of you.
It was men who had seen in their lifetimes the persecution of those who didn't believe just so. It was men who had seen in their lifetimes the last fiery brandings of the Inquisition and bloody conflicts between this and that sect of Christianity. It was men who valued dissent and rebellion and the unorthodox, even while fervently practicing their religion.
Religion mixed with governmental authority is the best possible formula for crushing independent thought.
That's what they were so afraid of.