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viewpoint

There is no separation of church and state

| Wednesday, November 28, 2018

There is no such thing as separation of church and state. The two are totally inseparable, and what the modern interpretation of the term really means is the substitution of one church for another. One which is pretty gross, in my opinion. For clarification, I’m not saying that separation of church and state isn’t desirable or is a bad thing (despite what I may really think), but rather that the modern understanding of it is a myth, and not a good one like Hercules or any involving Aphrodite and Ares (the rascals).

To understand this, first you have to know precisely what I mean by separation of church and state. I don’t mean separation of church and state as our noble (and largely illiberal — read my thesis, please) Founders intended it (more on this later), but rather the separation of church and state as understood by moderns (read: you). I.e., the idea that politicians and the legislation they produce ought to be free from the dictates or influence of any particular established church doctrine.

To illustrate this modern position, I’ll quote from two fairly prominent Catholic (duh) politicians, Kennedy and Biden. Then-candidate John F. Kennedy said to some Baptists that “Whatever issue may come before me as president, if I should be elected, on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject, I will make my decision in accordance with these views — in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates.” Biden wrote in his autobiography that “I don’t think I have the right to impose my view — on something I accept as a matter of faith — on the rest of society.” Admirable as these sentiments may be (if admirable they are), they express one basic idea: Separation of church and state means that I won’t legislate or make policy decisions on moral assumptions handed to me by my church. This may seem a tad strong, but I think it’s fairly straightforward. What does it mean to “impose my view which I accept as a matter of faith on the rest of society?” Or “[make my decision] without regard to outside religious … dictates?” Biden has made it pretty clear that those views include something like abortion, which he claims to agree is intrinsically evil, as the church believes. In this case, Biden would not oppose abortion from this moral stance he received from the church, as he wouldn’t “impose his view on the rest of society.” What Kennedy said can be understood to be basically the same as what Biden did, but less fun to read. This is literally the same as saying they won’t govern from moral assumptions given to them by a church.

But abortion is obviously a moral issue, as are many other issues from war to immigration. So where are the state and its leaders supposed to obtain their basic moral commitments? The answer is obvious: the general moral feeling of the people.

Absent separation of church and state, as in most (read: all) countries prior to the Enlightenment, the state received moral assumptions from the church with which it was associated and legislated from those assumptions. Under separation of church and state as understood by the esteemed gentlemen above, the state still legislates from moral assumptions — as it is impossible to do otherwise — and still receives those assumptions from a church. But in this case, that church is general public moral feeling, and therefore subject to the ebbs and flows of that notoriously changeable phenomenon.

If the negative implications are not immediately clear to you, oh reader-whom-I-respect, let me spell them out: Without an explicit theology or religious authority, this church of public opinion’s moral dictates will be as changeable as whether low-waisted jeans look good (they don’t). So, something like gay marriage, which is morally questionable in one era, can suddenly become morally acceptable in the next, and the politicians follow suit in their public positions (*cough* Hillary Clinton). Further, without an enduring definition of right and wrong, our moral commitments are vulnerable to the whims of demagogues.

What these examples make clear is not that we should get rid of separation of church and state as an idea, but that the modern conception is garbage, as without some external source of moral norms more solid than public opinion, our compass will swing around as aimlessly as one on Mars (Mars doesn’t have a magnetic field. That’s right I know science, guess I’m a renaissance man).

I promised I would say more about what the Founders meant by separation of church and state initially, and I’ll be uncharacteristically brief. Just think about what “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” means and agree with me that it doesn’t mean “don’t govern from moral assumptions you learned in Sunday school.”

Matt Marsland is a senior studying political science from Wisconsin. The viewpoints expressed in this column are those of the individual and not necessarily those of BridgeND as an organization.

The views expressed in this column do not necessarily represent those of The Observer.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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BridgeND is a bipartisan student political organization that brings together Democrats, Republicans, and all those in between to discuss public policy issues of national importance. They meet Tuesday nights (starting Sept.8) from 8-9pm in the McNeil room of LaFortune. They can be reached at [email protected] or by following them on Twitter @bridge_ND

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