This piece addresses separation of church and state, and thinking for ourselves.
Four score and 137 years ago, our forefathers had the foresight and intelligence to amend the Constitution of the fledgling United States of America to ensure various freedoms, including freedom of religion. Over time, this evolved into separation between church and state. The importance of that separation has never been more self-evident than it has in recent years.
I am comforted that our President is a deeply religious man. However, I am troubled by his apparent belief that his policies are God’s will. The role of religion should be to help define the man and not government policy. We need only to look at examples of sectarian governments in the Middle East to realize the inherent conflicts of interest. Our forefathers, many of whom were deeply religious, understood that. They wrote the Bill of Rights to define our freedoms; they accepted that the Ten Commandments defined our morality. It is in this divergence that there is room and need for both.
Governmental laws have some basis in the religious beliefs of those who create them, and as well, religious laws have some basis in the political inclinations of those who create them. Religion and government can and should work hand-in-hand. However, religion should neither drive nor be driven by government. When religions adopt political agendas, they lose their neutrality, and thus become part of the problem rather than the solution. Similarly, when governments adopt moral agendas, they lose their ability to represent all of those they serve, and often alienate some religious groups in the process.
Governments have physical boundaries, defined by the constitutions of the nations or states that sponsor them. Religions are boundless, in that they are borne by people, who can be part of any nation or state. Religion is passed on from generation to generation, much like genetic heritage, serving as a beacon to travel through life, and its adaptation to change is subtle and deliberate. Governmental laws are man-made, providing a framework of rules of acceptable behavior, but they can be changed, abandoned, or overturned, often with little or no consequence.
Religion has been vitally important throughout history; it has held people together, thrust them apart, and set them against each other. One common belief among many different religions is that each is absolute and righteous, but absolutism is not the same as absolution. A religion perverted to suit the political aims of its leaders is as offensive as a government claiming divine providence. Neither gives its followers or subjects much choice but to obey or become outcasts. Those who succumb often do so out of fear, and often fear leads to desperation.
In some ways, religion and nationalism are similar. Both offer a central theme to rally around; both can be extremely powerful, and can evoke strong emotions; both can be exclusionary and bigoted. Religious symbols have deep meaning, and can inspire a pride akin to nationalism. Religions are steeped in tradition, and the tradition itself affirms the religion, enabling passage from generation to generation, and assuring some consistency across the continents.
Religion is deeply personal. For some, it brings a sense of belonging; for others, it brings a sense of hope; for still others, it brings a sense of peace. We all decide what and how much to believe in, but once committed, we tend to be devoted to those beliefs and willing to accept much from our religious leaders and scriptures on faith.
Nationalism is also felt very deeply on a personal level. National pride is seldom more evident than when there is a perceived or real threat to national security. As long as the response is decisive, its propriety is seldom questioned, and we tend to rally around our leaders.
As Abraham Maslow observed in the middle of the 20th century, once physiological and safety/security needs are met, people tend to seek a sense of belonging. Nations, even dysfunctional ones, provide safety and security for their loyal citizens; religions often fulfill a sense of belonging. When safety and security is threatened, and there is no sense of nationalism, which is clearly the current case in Iraq, people look to fill the void in any way they can, and seek safety and security in community. They often find and build community in their religious sects, but differences between the sects lead to civil discord.
Leaders emerge and identify with their followers, and in so doing, exert their own influence and indoctrinate with their own version of truth, perverse as it may be. As humans, we are endowed with the incomparable ability to think for ourselves, but many of us are encumbered by the incomprehensible tendency to avoid doing so. Too often, we allow our views to be subjugated by those who have the more powerful voice, or the more charismatic delivery. We blindly follow those who would lead, and many who would lead follow a distorted path. We treasure those we are taught to love, and despise those we are taught to hate. If we allow ourselves the freedom of thought, we may keep from destroying all we have wrought.