Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Why We Separate Church and State

I originally posted this to my personal e-mail list in August 2004: * * * * * * * * * Just received this e-mail from a friend: "It is said that 86% of Americans believe in God. Therefore I have a very hard time understanding why there is such a mess about having "In God We Trust" on our money and having God in the Pledge of Allegiance. Why don't we just tell the 14% to Sit Down and SHUT UP!!! "If you agree, pass this on, if not simply delete..." No offense to the friend. She's a great one. But in the spirit of sharing ideas, and responding to ideas when others tell me their thoughts, here's what I say to that: * * * * * 1. Pardon my quoting from the old language of the King James Version, but here's how I learned the passage: "Go ye therefore and TEACH all nations ..." Ramming it down someone's throat is probably not the gentlest or most effective form of teaching. It's not the approach that Jesus took. If someone doesn't want to hear about God, well, you know, they've got a right to that. Just like you don't have to let some religious person -- some Jehovah's Witness, for example -- keep knocking on your door for hours on end. You can tell them to go away. They ought to do it anyway. It's just basic kindness and respect. But if they're too rude to leave you alone, you've got the law to shut them up. Nobody should be forced to listen to someone else's religious ideas, much less endorse them on the national currency. * * * * * 2. I'm not sure how the 86% statistic is calculated. It says 86% believe in God. Just one God. But I think that's got to be false. Consider, for example, Christians and Jews. The Jews don't believe in the Trinity. So ... are they talking about the same God? The Jews don't think Jesus is God; the Christians do. Sounds like a different God to me. Consider the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Unitarians, and others who believe in God, but don't believe in a Trinity. Consider the millions of liberal Christians who don't claim to believe in or care about the Trinity. Still talking about the same God? People familiar with questionnaires realize that you can get a lot of different results, depending on how you ask your questions. Consider, for instance, what would happen if an interviewer asked these questions of 1,000 different people: -- Do you believe that God exists? -- If so, do you believe that God is a divine being? -- Is there only one divine being? -- Would angels, or the Devil, be divine beings? -- Would it be all right if someone believed that each divine being is a god? -- Is there only one god? Saying that 86% of Americans believe in "God" is like saying that 99% of Americans don't believe in murder. Well, OK, but ... capital punishment? Is it ever murder, when a soldier kills a civilian during war? How about when police shoot to kill, when maybe they wouldn't have to? How about driving an SUV when you know it is quite likely to kill people in any Honda you happen to hit, and when you know that accidents do happen? Is that murder? Even if they don't prosecute, isn't it manslaughter? Reasonable minds are going to disagree. When I hear that 86% of Americans believe in God, that's like saying that 86% of Americans believe in sunshine. Sure they do: but what does it mean? * * * * * 3. Who is "God"? Conservative Christians believe he is a not a "he," but is rather a "they": three persons in one Godhead. Few Bible passages support the concept of the Trinity, and many oppose it. Example: Jesus, on the cross, cried out, "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Was he talking to himself? This is all very old, very familiar material. People ignore it because it does not agree with what they want to hear. They claim to "believe" that God is a Trinity, no matter what. But it is a cheap, easy belief. Nobody is going to put them to death for believing in the Trinity. But if that threat did exist, you can be sure that people would be wanting to take a much closer look at the scriptural support for the trinitarian doctrine. Suddenly a lot more people would be honest about their real beliefs. Then we would see if so many people really "believe" in their present God. * * * * * 4. What does it mean for a nation to be "under" God? Are we pretending that he rules this country? I wouldn't think so. My impression, from the way conservative Christians talk, is that the country is going to the dogs. Hopefully they are not trying to stick God with the blame for this mess. I think they must mean that America is "under" God in the sense that we all *should* be following God's guidance in how we run the country. This gets pretty specific, as people are able to imagine God's role in endless detail. Example: "What kind of car would Jesus drive?" But there are no supportive Bible passages for such foolishness, and supportive Bible passages are what fundamentalist Christianity is all about. People who claim not to believe in big government thus sometimes give the impression that they would accept a massive bureaucracy, like the old Roman Catholic empire, if it existed for the purpose of whipping everyone into line. And what line would that be? I have yet to hear a consistent explanation, from fundamentalist Christians, as to whether we are supposed to observe or ignore Leviticus. I thought Jesus and Paul made pretty clear that the Law of Moses was a thing of the past, but that's hard to do when you're so excited about the Ten Commandments. (But see murder, above.) Fundamentalists seem pretty eager to hate homosexuals, but equally eager to ignore all those other laws of Moses. Why, for example, don't they observe the kosher dietary laws? The idea that America should be "under" God sounds a lot like the typical revolutionary attitude: "We don't know what our new world will look like, but we want to see it come -- and if it comes at the expense of blood and destruction, that's OK! That's what we believe! In God we trust!" It is a savage, evil attitude. In the 1700s, the writers of the Bill of Rights were closer to the Middle Ages. They remembered, more clearly than people nowadays, that Christians had tortured and killed Jews, and one another, in various religious wars, in the Inquisition, and in the Crusades -- and that they had blamed this goofiness and evil on God. Ah, but we are smarter now. We don't have to know anything about the history of Christian behavior. We are the first generation that has ever confronted any of these issues. Right? * * * * * 5. I appreciate the writer of the original message, above, for pointing out the similarity between having "under God" in the Pledge" and "In God We Trust" on the money. Neither of them belongs there. The New Testament says nothing about trusting God to lead America. The New Testament is about spiritual salvation. Jesus, Paul, and other New Testament writers and actors explicitly *declined* to become politically involved. When Jesus looked at the coin, he said, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's." He did not say, "Hey, this coin should say, 'In God We Trust.'" Once again, we have these supposedly spiritual people, dragging faith into the ugly world of politics, with all its lies and fantasies. Faith, as a result, takes a beating. Christian belief does not come out looking lovely and special. It comes out looking like a tool of force with which you can imprison and kill innocent people. Paul warned about wolves who would come among the sheep. We have wolves aplenty today: religious leaders who know they can whip up a lot of excitement with sordid tales about the latest evil things that some politician or other category of person (e.g., "liberals") are up to now. It's got nothing to do with the Bible, but that's not important. The important thing is to be mad as hell. Christians need to do a little more reading of their Bibles, before they go out preaching to everyone else about what the "true" faith is, or how their own scriptures intend that faith to be practiced or communicated to others. Fundamentalists, of all people, need to be able to point to the Bible passages that mandate inscriptions like "In God we trust" on governmental currency. And if they are honest enough to admit there are no such passages, then they should give it a rest.