Friday, September 2, 2011

Separation of Church and State, Assumptions, and Fear

This is my third post about an op-ed piece by The New York Times' executive editor. He made some all-too-familiar assumptions about religious beliefs.
Mr. Keller also thinks that a political candidate's religious beliefs matter, and that reporters should ask questions about those beliefs. That makes sense.

Mr. Keller also seems to think that religious beliefs, if taken seriously, are a symptom of delusional thinking. That doesn't make sense. Not to me.

But then, I'm one of those people who have religious beliefs: and 'everybody knows' what they're like.

The Establishment Clause, and Fear of Religious People

Bear with me, please: This is a long quote. I think it's important to show what Mr. Keller wrote.
"...Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are both affiliated with fervid subsets of evangelical Christianity - and Rick Santorum comes out of the most conservative wing of Catholicism - which has raised concerns about their respect for the separation of church and state, not to mention the separation of fact and fiction....

"...Every faith has its baggage, and every faith holds beliefs that will seem bizarre to outsiders. I grew up believing that a priest could turn a bread wafer into the actual flesh of Christ...."1[emphasis mine]
When folks refer to the "separation of church and state," the odds are that they mean the 'establishment clause' in the First Amendment to the Constitution:
"...Two clauses in the First Amendment guarantee freedom of religion. The establishment clause prohibits the government from passing legislation to establish an official religion or preferring one religion over another. It enforces the 'separation of church and state.'..."
("First Amendment," LII / Legal Information Institute, Cornell University Law School)
Note: That's "freedom of religion," not "freedom from religion."

I've written about "separation of church and state" before:
" 'Separation of church and state' can mean anything from what the Constitution actually says, to the idea that those religious people should stay behind closed doors when they practice their - you know, that religious stuff....

"...The folks who wrote up this country's Constitution were familiar with state religions in Europe. Which is, I think, what's behind the "establishment clause." Of course, I'm one of those folks who have a 'narrow' mind. I don't get the sort of mystic crystal revelation that makes it possible to see things that aren't written in the first amendment. I discussed America's creative judiciary and Iowa on Wednesday. (November 3, 2010)..."2)
Concerns about the "separation of church and state are nothing new. The First Amendment to the Constitution includes a clause reflecting the former colonists' determination to not repeat one of Europe's mistakes.

That was then, this is now. What started as a legal measure to prevent someone from setting up a state church has changed. In the minds of America's information gatekeepers, anyway.3 The bogey man for many today seems to be religious beliefs of any sort, and the folks who take them seriously.

I'd probably as concerned as Mr. Keller, if someone tried to set up a state religion in America. Partly because I know history, partly because I have personal experience with flaky faith. I grew up in an area where a particularly virulent strain of religion was endemic. I've discussed malignant virtue, and how that was involved in my conversion to Catholicism before.

Nobody in this season's crop of candidates has called for repeal of the establishment clause, as far as I know. For which I'm duly grateful.

Why would anyone be afraid of religious people? I think it has to do with what America's 'better sort' think people who take their faith seriously are like.

'Stupid Religious People,' Assumptions, and Fear

There are folks who seem determined to prove that 'nothing makes people stupider than religion.'4


(ArizonaLincoln (talk), via Wikipedia, used w/o permission)

That's part of Fred Phelps' little band. He's got a sort of roll-your-own version of Christianity, and makes the news when his followers disrupt another funeral. The anti-Semitism expressed is a little unusual for what appears to be an American Protestant denomination.

Fred Phelp's Westboro (Kansas) Baptist Church isn't, as I've said before, typical of Christianity. It's not even representative of American Protestantism.

That lot, folks like the serial Quran burners in Florida, and Harold Camping's followers, tend to get in the news. They're loud, colorful, and often have a flair for the dramatic.

And they're 'religious people.' No wonder The New York Times' Mr. Keller is concerned about one of them running for office.

Not-So-Stupid Religious People

These are 'religious people,' too. I think they're not quite the same as Fred Phelps' bunch.


(The Pontifical Academy of Sciences, used w/o permission)

Catholics don't all wear 'funny looking' clothes. The clergy in that photo are in uniform. It's a photo from the Pontifical Academy of Sciences' home page.

Which gets me into the topics of science, faith, Gregor Mendel, Bishop Ussher: and a longer discussion than I have time for tonight.

Freedom of Religion: For Everybody

I've said this before: The Catholic Church teaches that freedom of religion is important. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2104-2109)

Religious freedom for everybody:
" 'Nobody may be forced to act against his convictions, nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in association with others, within due limits.'34 This right is based on the very nature of the human person, whose dignity enables him freely to assent to the divine truth which transcends the temporal order. For this reason it 'continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it.'35"
(Catechism, 2106)
I don't expect Mr. Keller to believe this, but he's safe from Catholics. We're not allowed to force our faith on others.

We are, however, obliged to point out when ethical principles are violated. And that's another topic.

Related posts:
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1 Quotes are from:
2 Source:
3 A gatekeeper is literally a doorkeeper or doorman: someone who guards an entrance. "Gatekeeper" may also be used as a metaphor:
"gatekeeper (someone who controls access to something) 'there are too many gatekeepers between the field officers and the chief' "
(Princeton's WordNet)
So, an "information gatekeeper" is someone who controls access to information. In America, traditional information gatekeepers have been educators, librarians, journalists, and media decision-makers. Happily, most believe that it's important to share information. "The public has a right to know" expressed that belief.

Not-so-happily, America's information gatekeepers tend to share a fairly well-defined set of values and cultural preferences. This affects their perceptions. As a result, much of the news and entertainment Americans get represents the world as a particular set of subcultures believes it is. I've discussed this sort of thing before: 4 Excerpt from a message by University of Minnesota, Morris, associate professor Paul Myers:
"There are days when it is agony to read the news, because people are so goddamned stupid. Petty and stupid. Hateful and stupid. Just plain stupid. And nothing makes them stupider than religion...."
(Paul Myers, from Pharyngula (July, 2008)))
I've quoted University of Minnesota, Morris, associate professor Paul Myers before:

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Marian Apparition: Champion, Wisconsin

Background:Posts in this blog: In the news:

What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.