Dispatches from the Creation Wars

My Church/State Views

In my ongoing discussion with the commenter King of Ireland, he has expressed confusion over where I stand on various church/state issues. I wrote a comment in response but I want to move it up here so everyone can see it. Here it is.

When it comes to separation of church and state, I’m actually a moderate not a strict separationist, and I recall spelling these things out to you in a comment very recently. Let me try again. What makes me a moderate rather than a strict separationist? First of all, I fully admit that the non-coercive accommodationism of Washington and Adams is a valid historical and legal interpretation of the first amendment. So is the strict separationism of Jefferson and Madison (far too many folks on my side like to pretend that only the Jefferson/Madison position is legitimate). But I would add that the fact that we are a far more diverse society today than we were in the 1790s is a powerful argument for preferring the Jefferson/Madison position.

There are several issues on which I disagree with most of the folks on my side of this issue. For instance, I strongly believe that anti-gay speech should have the full protection of the first amendment, even by students in schools. I also believe that Christian student groups should be allowed to discriminate and control their membership standards regardless of anti-discrimination rules in universities. I believe that churches should be allowed to involve themselves in politics without the sham of distinguishing between issues and candidates and I would do away with the IRS rules in that regard. I believe that school voucher programs that cover religious schools are constitutional and do not violate the establishment clause.

When it comes to government and religion, I am in favor of allowing any government official to speak their mind about religion all they want, but I oppose all attempts to make any sort of official government statements of a religious nature. That includes putting “in God we trust” on the money, adding “under God” to the pledge of allegiance or making any sort of declarations of days of prayer and thanksgiving. Does that mean those things are unconstitutional? Under the Jefferson/Madison conception of the first amendment, yes; under the Washington/Adams conception, no. Both are legitimate legal and constitutional positions, but I think in today’s vastly more diverse world where Americans are not 99% Christian as they were 220 years ago but are a menagerie of different religious views, the former is the better interpretation.

When it comes to religion in schools, I am in favor of allowing maximum free religious speech by students. I am a big supporter of allowing the formation of Christian student groups and Bible clubs in schools, of allowing students to talk about religion, try to persuade their fellow students to believe as they do, and so forth, as long as they do so without disrupting the educational mission of the school. But when it comes to curriculum issues, which is government speech rather than individual speech, I think religion should be pretty much totally irrelevant. Schools should teach those views that are supported by the evidence and by the consensus of experts in those fields and it doesn’t matter whether it conflicts with someone’s religious views. We teach that the earth is round no matter what the flat earthers think the Bible says. We teach that the earth rotates around the sun no matter what the geocentrists think the Bible says. We teach that modern life forms share a common ancestor regardless of what the creationists think the Bible says. We teach that humans have been on the earth for only 200,000 years no matter what the Hindu creationists think. We teach that disease is caused by microorganisms and other physical causes no matter what the Christian Scientists think. We teach that earthquakes and hurricanes are caused by natural phenomena no matter what Pat Robertson or the Bible says. And that is how it should be. The fact that some religion may object to any of those ideas has no relevance whatsoever to whether they should be taught.


  1. #1 ConcernedJoe
    January 28, 2008

    Ed – I go along with your essentially liberal view that the government needs to stay out of the speech department. But that is not the issue your title suggests you are addressing: church/state issues. Sure the issue of free-speech is involved in the topic but is not the topic.

    The issue is whether the government can use any of its power (directly or indirectly) to promote anything religious. I say no – emphatically! It is a dangerous dangerous thing to allow the government any leeway here. Not because they may turn an atheist into a theist, or even because they may offend an atheist, but because they (the people in government) will use religion as a powerful force to unfairly maintain control of their personal and/or party’s power, and because in doing so it makes our democratic system less rational and allows the lower common denominator to have much more power than they should.

    I know this bears more explanation (that I will not give now) but I say allowing the government any slack in this area is akin to allowing them slack to use of the IRS as they want (they will use this power to control one’s voting and avvocating habits I have no doubt).

    Again I am with you on the free-speech, and I think you are mostly with me on what government can do. But I sense in your tone more wiggle room than we should give them institutionally (e.g. I’ve explicitly say no tax exemptions period except for real secular charity work — why? because the government by tax exemptions – giving or withholding – promotes one voice over another). Maybe you agree – maybe not — maybe I am not understood – maybe I am wrong. But that is how I feel now.

    People can be religious, but government institutions (including schools) or even government officials while acting as government officials cannot be; ever or in any way.