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Tuesday, March 8, 2005

The 'wall of separation' casts a shadow.

James Carroll, the Boston Globe's liberal Catholic op-ed columnist, praises America's separation of church and state but points to the way it has also been "distorted into a terrible dichotomy that undercuts both politics and belief." He praises Jefferson and the other Founders for embracing a theory of government that "required the state to be religiously neutral":

Far from an insult to faith, the "wall of separation" was a guarantee that each citizen, free of public coercion, could worship at the altar of conscience or not. This foundational idea of American democracy protects political freedom of a diverse citizenry but also creates space within which authentic religion can thrive. The courts are right to keep the line sharp, and new democracies around the world are right to draw it.

But he argues that we have taken this basic concept in dangerous and illiberal directions:

Early on, "church and state" became a euphemism for the separation of the private realm from the public the separation of morality from law. "You can't legislate morality," Americans told each other. Because the language of morality was associated with religion, the discourse of "secular" politics became ethically hollow. . . .

[D]rawing a bright line between morality and the rest of life has become the American way.

He adds that this divide has also encouraged a split between reason and religion, trivializing the Christian tradition. There's a little too much packed into one column, but worth reading. ("The Dark Side of Secularism," James Carroll, Boston Globe 3.8.05)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 8 March 2005 at 8:37 AM

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March 8, 2005 06:50 PM | Permalink for this comment

"He adds that this divide has also encouraged a split between reason and religion, trivializing the Christian tradition."

David Hume gives us this distinction, and while I agree with Carroll's assessment, the division also has a way of protecting religion from self criticism (that is, religion being a part of the private realm is not subject to it)

I think the division needs to come down, but also with it, religion needs to be treated as a human concern much like others so that it too can be a matter of public inquiry, criticism, and the like. I think it would make religious claims and the way religion interacts with other groups in a society more responsible.

Barbara W. Klaser:

March 10, 2005 05:19 PM | Permalink for this comment

Has secularism gone too far? I have mixed feelings about this, but for the most part I don't think it has.

I do think the idea behind separation has been twisted, resulting for instance in older monuments that contain cross symbols being torn down. There was one in my home town that I felt a particular affection for. It's coming down now. Although I'm not Christian, I never minded it having a cross. It was part of the landscape. But it happens to be on public property.

I didn't think the Ten Commandments belonged in a courthouse, though. Obviously the courthouse is a place where you want as much objectivity as possible.

I would like to see fewer battles over secularism in the education system, and see science and health (namely sex education and evolution) return to all curriculums. These aren't about religion, they're about keeping kids safe and teaching known facts. The schools are a perfect place to teach tolerance and instead they've become a battleground over intolerance. Science belongs in public school.

serial catowner:

March 10, 2005 06:14 PM | Permalink for this comment

Carroll is mixing apples and oranges. The common-sense commercial aphorism that you cannot legislate morality does not spring from the separation clause. It has several roots, for example the general failure of the blue laws, prohibition, or planned religious communities based on a communal commercial model.

The aphorism reflects in part the fact that if you do legislate morality you also have to legislate and budget for an enforcement mechanism and a penalty phase. Sometimes it seems that all of this is more trouble than it's worth.

Trespassing on the separation clause is not going to result in increased prosecution of inside trading or other securities fraud. In fact, the most appalling violations of law, from any perspective, have occurred under the same present administration that most would like to encroach on our freedom from religion.

If we need any further clues as to the wisdom of not legislating morality, we need only look to the 'abstinence' programs that condemn their practitioners to elevated rates of AIDS infection. When such striking examples are so easily seen, it's just common sense to be skeptical about the role of religion in government.

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