Church and State (Great Debates: Tough Questions/Smart History)

Church and State (Great Debates: Tough Questions/Smart History)

by Geoffrey C. Harrison

ISBN: 9781603576031

Publisher Norwood House Pr

Published in Children's Books/Religions

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Sample Chapter


Does religious freedom create a stronger society?

America's most influential writer in the late 1700s was Thomas Paine. He had a way of making complex ideas easy for everyone to understand, even those who could not read. Paine felt that religious faith should exist between an individual and God. He thought that large, organized religions were too interested in gaining power and money. Of course, not all of the new nation's leaders agreed. When it came time to write the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the influence of religion in matters of government became a subject of intense debate ... Thomas Paine was one of the first political figures to shape opinion on church and state.

Thinking Independently

Many influential leaders shared the views of Paine. That was apparent when the Declaration of Independence was written in 1776. The word "God" appeared only once, and not in a way that promoted any religious ideas. This was a significant departure from official documents of European countries, which typically made reference to "Christianity" or "The Lord" or "Jesus." Something else caught the eye of many people. The term "Laws of Nature" was included in the Declaration of Independence, and it was capitalized. This was a signal that Americans considered freedom a human right, not a religious one.

The authors of the Declaration of Independence did not deny the existence of God. In fact, they thought of God as a supreme being who created the world and the laws of nature. Many considered themselves Deists. Deists believed in God. However, they did not accept the notion that God delivered knowledge to people, that God was the source of all religious knowledge, or that the miracles described in the Bible were real. Deists thought that life followed the laws of nature, not the laws of any one religion. The laws of nature, they said, were enough to prove the existence of God.

Deism began in the late 1600s and was popular among the educated upper classes in America and Europe. It appealed to those who had a thirst for scientific knowledge. Thomas Jefferson probably counted himself as a Deist. That would explain some of the wording in the Declaration of Independence. In his original draft, Jefferson made a reference to Christianity in a very negative way. It was edited out of the final version.

Many believe that Benjamin Franklin and James Madison, along with other founding fathers, thought of themselves as Deists. This belief system remained popular until the early 1800s, but it was very much in play when the nation's key documents were being written. Later, many Deists gravitated toward the Unitarian branch of Christianity, which embraced many of their basic ideas.

A Framework for Governing

After the Revolutionary War, when the founding fathers began writing the Constitution, they were careful to exclude religion from official matters. For example, elected or appointed officials no longer had to pass "religious tests." This had not been the case in colonial America. Also, when being sworn in, the word "God" was not a part of the President's official oath.

The Constitution mostly covered what the government could and could not do. The Bill of Rights added amendmentsto the Constitution. These addressed the rights of United States citizens. In the First Amendment, Congress was prohibited from making a law that prevented the establishment of a religion or kept people from worshiping in whatever way they wanted.

In the years that followed, many of the founding fathers wrote about or discussed the separation of church and state. They were aware that important Christian groups wanted a society similar to colonial times, when the churches held more power. Political leaders such as Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin made the point again and again that mixing government and organized religion would damage both. In a letter written in 1802, Jefferson talked about a "wall of separation between church and state." This was actually the first time the phrase "church and state" appeared in any kind of document.

America's unique position in the world as a government without a state religion came into play in the 1790s. During this era, Barbary Pirates based in North Africa presented a constant threat to shipping in the Mediterranean. Hoping to avoid war, the U.S. signed the Treaty of Tripoli. In it was a section that made it clear that America was not a "Christian nation" and that it respected the Muslim religion of the Ottoman government. Today, America is viewed by some people in the Islamic faith as a threat — despite the fact that it still has no official religion, and millions of Muslims enjoy the rights and freedoms of American citizenship. Why might some Muslims feel threatened by a country with no official religion?


Should there be limits to religious freedom in our society?

The founding fathers thought it was important that the Constitution protect all religious beliefs and practices. But when they approved the First Amendment, they may not have expected that it would deal with belief systems that strayed far from Christianity. By the same token, it was also understood that any religious belief or practice that violated the rights of another person — or that broke a law — would be covered by other parts of the Bill of Rights. By the mid-1800s, however, some openly challenged this assumption, triggering the first great debate about church and state ...

The Mormons

In 1878, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case that brought up questions about how the Constitution was worded. At the time, the Mormon religion believed in polygamy — that its male members could have more than one wife. A federal law passed in 1862 made this a crime. George Reynolds, a high-ranking member of the Mormon church, was married to two women. He decided to test the constitutionality of this law.

Reynolds claimed that having more than one wife was his religious duty. In this case, all seven Supreme Court justices agreed that his argument was weak. They made reference to the fact that Thomas Jefferson had actually addressed this point of religious duty when he wrote that religious belief was indeed protected by the Constitution. However, actions that are encouraged by religious belief do not necessarily deserve the same protection.

At the time, most Americans applauded this decision. They may have felt that the Mormons deserved to worship as they pleased, but this was a case where the "greater good" had to be considered. Clearly, the government and its laws took precedent over religious freedom. For instance, what if a religion believed in human sacrifice? Should the Constitution protect that practice? In the end, the court decided that the First Amendment protected the ideas and opinions of a religion, but not the actions of its followers if they broke the law.

Influence of Technology

Debates over the separation of church and state have also been triggered by new trends and technologies. For instance, during the 20th century it became an issue in the movie business. In the early 1900s, Americans discovered an exciting new form of entertainment: motion pictures. In 1915, a film called The Birth of a Nation stirred up protests across the country because it showed racist scenes that disturbed many Americans. Many lawsuits followed, and eventually the Supreme Court was asked to weigh in. The court ruled that film companies were businesses and therefore did not enjoy the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. In this particular case, the issue was freedom of speech.

Based on this decision, many states and cities set up movie censorship boards. Before a film could be shown in a theater, it had to be approved by the local board. If the board members believed it was indecent or offensive, they would not grant the theater owner a license to show the film. If a movie house disregarded its censorship board, the owner could be fined or even jailed. Standards for decency differed wildly from town to town. Films were banned for all sorts of reasons. Some boards objected to scenes that showed children of different races playing together. Others banned movies that dealt with subjects such as pregnancy.

In 1952, a film called The Miracle was banned by censors in New York City. Cardinal Francis Spellman — the leader of the city's Catholic church — announced that the movie was sacrilegious and convinced the board to prevent it from being shown. The company behind the film sued because the decision was made on religious grounds. Once again, it was a freedom of speech issue, but it also involved the separation of church and state. This time, the Supreme Court found that, although it was still a business, the film industry had become an important means for communicating ideas — so it could not be censored in this way anymore. Why is it important for the Supreme Court to be able to "change its mind" as the times change?


Does the church-and-state debate belong in the classroom?

The separation of church and state in schools did not attract much attention until about 100 years ago. Many public schools began the day with a prayer or a reading from the Bible. However, a growing movement to remove religious viewpoints from the classroom gained strength in 1925, when a Tennessee educator named John Scopes was found guilty of breaking a state law after discussing evolution in his science class. Soon, more and more attention was focused on religious instruction in public schools and the behavior of school boards. This led to another important debate ...

Bus Stop

In 1947, the Supreme Court heard a case about a school board in New Jersey that had refunded bus fare to parents of children attending a local Catholic school. The children received religious training at their school, and the money came from tax dollars paid to the local government. In a close decision, the court ruled that reimbursing bus fare did not go against the Constitution. The justices pointed out that the town policy was to refund bus fare to all families, so no religion had been favored.

In its decision, the Supreme Court actually spent more time clarifying the part of the Constitution that says no law can be created that favors one religion over another. The justices reinforced the idea that no law could force someone to go to a church or make someone state a belief in a religion. To underscore their point, they quoted the words of Thomas Jefferson, whose goal was to "erect a wall between Church and State." The debate may have started over bus fare, but the reasoning behind the Supreme Court's decision had a far greater impact.

This case prompted a major turn of events in the United States. It came at a time when many Americans were looking for ways to strengthen their faith, because of the threat of Communism and the possibility of nuclear war. For instance, in 1954 at the request of President Dwight Eisenhower, the Pledge of Allegiance was changed to include the words "under God." Prior to that, the pledge contained no religious language.

School Prayer

Soon the role of religion in American schools became a topic of debate. Private schools were free to decide how worship and prayer fit into their daily schedules. However, public schools were subject to the rules separating church and state. Did Eisenhower's new Pledge of Allegiance mean that religion was gaining a foothold in these institutions?

Some groups believed religion should be kept out of public schools altogether. They pointed out that the First Amendment said that government could not make a law respecting the establishment of a religion. In 1962, the Supreme Court heard a case about voluntary prayer in New York schools. The justices ruled this unconstitutional. The fact that it was voluntary didn't matter. Nor did the fact that it was non-denominational.

Did this mean that all religious discussion was no longer allowed in public schools? Not necessarily. In 1971, the Supreme Court made it clear that religious ideas could be taught in schools, as long as they had a non-religious educational purpose. Also, they could not be used to support or oppose a specific religion. In their decision, the justices were careful to point out that separation of church and state could never be total separation — that was impossible. There would always be some involvement of the government in religion, and vice versa. What Jefferson had called a "wall" now looked more like a blurry line.

In recent years, the debate about religion in public schools has focused on attempts to reintroduce religious beliefs into certain classes for the sake of "balance." For example, Louisiana passed a state law instructing its science teachers to give Creationism an equal amount of teaching time to evolution. Creationists do not agree with the scientific theory that life evolved slowly over billions of years. The Supreme Court struck down the Louisiana law on the grounds that it did not improve the way science was being taught in schools, and because it pushed the beliefs of a specific religion. In which classes would it be appropriate to discuss belief systems such as Creationism?


Should the government have power over religion?

Despite the separation of church and state, religion has played a huge role in American politics. Any person campaigning in an election can expect to have his or her faith examined. Politicians often offer their religious views as reasons to vote for them. Almost as often, their opponents use those views against them. Sometimes elected officials will try to insert their religious beliefs into the creation of legislation. Even if they fail, they can win the favor of like-minded voters. Using religion for political gain is nothing new, but it does bring up an issue worthy of debate ...

Playing Politics

When Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in 2008, it was a religious first. Never before had a president (or vice president) been raised in a home that did not follow a Christian religion. In Obama's case, his mother and grandparents encouraged him to explore all faiths, including Islam. As an adult, Obama became a Christian.

During Obama's campaign for president, however, some of his opponents tried to suggest that he was a "secret Muslim." As a child, he had lived for a while in Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population. Other opponents looked at Obama's record as a Christian. Some complained that he had not been a regular churchgoer, while others thought that the ministers he knew were racist or anti-American.

This type of scrutiny had become commonplace in politics. For more than 150 years, members of the Catholic faith found running for office extremely difficult outside of their home areas. Because Catholics follow the Pope as their spiritual leader, some Americans wondered what would happen if he instructed an elected official to do something that went against the Constitution.

A Question of Faith

Al Smith was the governor of New York in the 1920s. He was also Catholic. Smith was very popular for improving the way government was run and how it helped people in need. Smith ran for president in 1928 but lost the election. Voters were not convinced that he would put his office above his faith.

By 1960, views on Catholicism had changed enough so that John F. Kennedy won a narrow presidential victory. Forty years later, Al Gore selected Joe Lieberman as his vice-presidential candidate when running for president. The pair lost one of the closest elections in history. Lieberman would have been the first person of Jewish faith to hold such a high office. Some believe his religion may have played a role in the loss at the polls.

In 2006, Keith Ellison ran for U.S. Congress in Minnesota. A practicing Muslim, he won the election and became the first person of his faith to go to Washington. Ellison posed for his official swearing-in photo with his hand on the Qu'ran instead of the Bible. Some people complained about this choice. Ellison pointed out that the Qu'ran used for the photo had originally been owned by Thomas Jefferson!

Attacking candidates for their religious beliefs is nothing new, of course. Jefferson faced defeat in the presidential election of 1797 because of claims he was anti-Christian. His opponents pointed to his involvement in writing the Constitution!

Religious institutions in the U.S. do not have to pay taxes on the money they earn. This is an important part of the separation of church and state. At the same time, religious institutions are prohibited from endorsing political candidates, which is equally important. Even so, throughout history, different religious groups have usually favored one political party over another. Members of a certain religion tend to vote together for candidates whose religious beliefs — or whose policies — mirror their own. For example, during much of the 20th century, Catholics favored the Democratic party because it was seen as protecting the rights of everyday workers. If religions in America could officially endorse candidates, how might this change the nature of political campaigns?

Excerpted from "Church and State (Great Debates: Tough Questions/Smart History)" by Geoffrey C. Harrison. Copyright © 2013 by Geoffrey C. Harrison. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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