Bob Franken: Church and state: still separate?

  • By Bob Franken
  • Tuesday, October 14, 2014 4:50pm
  • Opinion

I have always agreed that the two subjects that should be avoided in polite conversation are religion and politics. Well, since I’m forever talking politics, one can easily figure out what I think about polite conversation — obviously not much.

But if there is any doubt, let’s discuss religion today. We can start with this question: Who are you going to believe, Antonin Scalia or Thomas Jefferson? Justice Scalia recently made a speech at Colorado Christian University in which he declared that there is nothing in the Constitution stating that “the government cannot favor religion over nonreligion.”

It’s interesting that someone who is described as an “Originalist” would apply his own reasoning to the First Amendment, which specifically prohibits “an establishment of religion.” The author, Thomas Jefferson, made it clear what he meant. In an 1802 letter, he wrote that he intended a “wall of separation between church and state.”

The problem with Scalia is that his point of view is not just idle opinion; his legal opinions can be part of the final word on this country’s laws. It’s a good thing, for instance, that the Supremes decided not to take on gay marriage, because at least one-ninth of the deciders, probably more, would base their vote on their religious views trumping equal treatment under the law.

Without a doubt, the Founding Fathers were men of faith, and it is true that we say “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, but it is a huge leap from that to the demands that America be formally declared a “Christian nation,” as some hard-liners suggest.

A new Pew survey shows that nearly a third of the respondents believe their house of worship should be allowed, encouraged, to give political endorsements … coming out in favor of candidates. Absolutely: Let’s get rid of that prohibition, particularly since it’s such a charade. But then we also should eliminate the tax deduction for the different churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, etc.

One could argue that such favorable treatment is an endorsement of religion that should be eliminated, but let’s not go there, because now we’re talking about money, which is really impolite.

What happens when one faith or the other wants to impose its will on those who hold other beliefs, or none at all? In the wrong hands, we could be required to follow doctrine we don’t share and be punished for dissenting.

Obviously, in this day and age, no one here contemplates the kind of religion-gone-wild tyranny we see today among Muslim extremists. They justify brutal violence in their demands for compliance to their oppressive interpretations of morality and vicious punishment for deviating from it. It’s hyperbole to use terms like “Taliban” to describe all but a few of the most hardscrabble zealots. For a large part, in this country we take pride in honoring someone’s right to faith or lack of faith.

Except when we don’t. The question of gay marriage is just the latest arena that has been flooded with dogma. When we strip away the foolish arguments about propagation and a large amount of ignorant prejudice, we’re left with an opposition based on homosexuality violating “God’s law.” We hear it not just from Christians but hard-liners from so many other religions. They cite their scriptures to make their point, and never mind that those same scriptures can be interpreted to justify anything.

They’re entitled to their beliefs, but because there are so many of them, and they vote, we are left with what John Adams called a “tyranny of the majority.” It’s happened throughout our history, when the momentary popular passion of the times has backed various noxious oppressions.

On the other hand, a beautiful part of our tradition is the profession of religious tolerance woven into our fundamental law. We can’t let the Antonin Scalias of this nation rip it from our fabric.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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