Knocking Over the Wall The Suppression of Church by State

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by Barry Loberfeld by Barry Loberfeld

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“I would ban religion completely…. Religion has always tried to turn hatred towards gay people. It turns people into hateful lemmings…. The reality is that organized religion doesn’t seem to work.” These words, from pop singer Elton John, are the latest indication that when it comes to the knee-jerk demand for government to prohibit the “offensive” — which for many includes homosexuality, as Sir Elton clearly knows — now even religion is no longer sacred.

John’s statement (however serious) is also a crystallization — of something commonly not grasped. Everyone, be they friend or foe, speaks of America’s “Religious Right,” and everyone, though they more often than not don’t use the term, acknowledges its Religious Left. They know who Pat Robertson and Jesse Jackson are. They’ve heard of the Christian Coalition and the National Council of Churches. But what has yet to fully materialize in the public mind is the Anti-Religious Left.

First, from the What’s-in-a-name? Department: We should really speak of the Theocratic Right and Left. That is their fundamental feature, which shouldn’t be confused with whether the members are personally “religious.” The term also voids the dogma that religious impositions from the Left are not theocratic the way their counterparts on the Right are. But Anti-Religious does not mean secular or personally opposed to religion; it denotes the wielding of state power against the religious. (Elsewhere, I’ve used the term atheocracy to convey this meaning.)

If the public isn’t fully aware of the Anti-Religious Left, it’s because said phenomenon isn’t fully realized as a movement. Communism is its most obvious manifestation, but not its most prominent — not in the United States. Its members have no one organization but, like Communists, infiltrate other groups. Thus, they reveal themselves, not by affiliation, but by advocacy. Its practical expression can be found in the policies of the socialistic half of the American “mixed economy.” And behind that looms a perverse legal theory that, in a parallel conflicting combination, often co-exists with genuinely positive positions in such groups as the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Emotional fuel is drawn from such wells as The Humanist magazine, which zealously conjoins theological skepticism and left-of-center orthodoxy.

My own first awareness of — and personal contact with — the Anti-Religious Left occurred when I, as a libertarian, spoke at a meeting of Long Island Secular Humanists (LISH) in February of 2000. My talk was entitled “Theocracy in America: The Second Coming of the Christian Right,” and it dealt with the details of the truly abominable Christian Reconstructionists, who openly preach death by stoning for a multitude of Old Testament sins. It was very well received, and afterwards I enjoyed speaking with many of the attendees. They put me on the list to receive their newsletter/journal, which I often found engaging. I liked its definition of secular humanism (“the philosophy of life guided by reason and science, freed from religious and secular dogmas”) and especially its commitment to First Amendment principles.

But then I got the March 2004 issue. The French government had just prohibited public-school students from wearing anything “religious,” so the Question of the Month was: “Do you agree with France’s ban on religious garb or symbols in their Public Schools?” This was the first time I encountered something that I thought was beyond debate for this publication. I considered it as far-out as Amnesty International asking its American members whether they “agree” with torture in Pakistan. Even its language is Orwellian: Talk of banning “religious symbols” in the public schools of the West has always referred to symbols placed by the school — not worn by students, which had never before been an issue. The whole point of not having those symbols is that they, like a teacher-led prayer, might violate the religious convictions of students, who are themselves free to express those convictions. What was going on here?

The responses were published in the April issue. Some readers were as appalled as I, but many were not. One saw it as a matter of cultural relativism: “I am unfamiliar with the history and culture of France in this regard, and thus cannot make a judgment for that nation.” I couldn’t recall such relativism ever being brought to bear on the issue of freedom of religion as it concerned the “history and culture” of, say, Iran. Another complained that the ban exempted small crosses and thus gave Christians “privileges that are not accorded other groups.” One agreed with a “complete ban on the wearing of religious symbols” in theory but saw practical problems with its “implementation.” Other responses included:

  • “France is setting the right example of separation.”
  • “Certainly France sees things more clearly than we do….”
  • And my favorite, a one-word answer: “YES!”

Adding his own two cents, LISH’s director opined, “France may be overreacting, but then again, they’ve experienced religious wars on their own soil.” He concluded the matter with: “Read Don Ardell’s article for another point of view.”

“Viva La France! Just Say ‘Non’ To Religious Displays in Public Schools — Everywhere!” appears on the opposite page. Its writer is the expositor of “rational social wellness,” which, he informs us, “entails promoting freedoms, discouraging totalitarian mindsets and advancing basic rights.” After finishing his piece, I had rather the opposite impression.

Ardell is delighted with the news from abroad: “France is leading the way for secular democracies in taking steps to ban religious emblems in state schools … [and therefore] doing the rest of us (e.g., Canadians, Australians, Americans, British, etc.) a huge service.” Again, this doesn’t mean religious symbols posted by the “state schools,” but religious articles (e.g., “Jewish skullcaps”) worn by students. “Students who violate the ban can be expelled,” we are assured. No multiculturalist he, Ardell doesn’t even attempt to deny that the law is aimed at France’s Muslim population (“the key target of the ban”) and quotes then-National Assembly speaker Jean-Louis Debre: “What is at issue here is the clear affirmation that public school is a place for learning and not for militant activity or proselytism.” One more time: We have always been told that this “affirmation” means that the school will take no position regarding the religious beliefs of its students. And if a student can’t “proselytize” even by wearing a religious symbol, doesn’t logic demand that he further be prohibited from in any context speaking about religion?

The mobilization of the public schools to undermine religion has been blatantly the most animating campaign of the Anti-Religious Left — a fact reflected in the increasing number of Americans fleeing those schools precisely because what is taught conflicts so greatly with their personal convictions (e.g., ExodusMandate.org). The publications of Americans United and sundry “freethought” organizations speak with horror of what things religious (“fundamentalist”) parents would (and would not) teach their children if all schools were privatized. Even welfare-check “vouchers” are considered too dangerous — dangerous, that is, to what can be described only as a thought-control monopoly.

That “progressives” see no bias in condoms in the classroom, just as their conservative counterparts never saw bias in prayer in the classroom — and with neither, in an unholy alliance, seeing anything wrong in a ban on Muslim headdress — only demonstrates that both are blind to a single reality: Where there’s no political noninterference, there’s no political neutrality. Government can remain impartial towards the organic nexus of religious conviction and educational policy only by having nothing to do with either element. Thus, rather than attempt an impossible separation of Church and School, the State should effect what it can: the separation of itself from both.

The point extends beyond our First Amendment. No nation can morally maintain both a separation of Church and State and a union of School and State — i.e., state noninterference and state intervention, laissez faire and socialism, freedom and coercion, A and non-A. Privatized religion and socialized education — privatized anything and socialized anything — are the oil and water of political practice. The “mixed economy” never mixes.

What enables the Anti-Religious Left to use public education as a political weapon in the culture wars? The pretense that they are fighting only to maintain the “wall of separation between Church and State.” And what makes that pretense possible is a contemporary “liberal” interpretation of Jefferson’s metaphor — and thus Madison’s amendment — that is actually a misrepresentation on almost every point, i.e., an approach that can only topple that wall. The Founders’ “Church” is not a synonym for Christianity or even supernaturalism. It stands for the religious convictions of American citizens — whatever they might be. That’s why the First Amendment guarantees freedom of “religion” to the atheist as well as to every kind of theist. Quoting Jefferson: “[I]t does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god.” And the “State” does not mean government in any form. It stands for the limited state, the federal government established by the Constitution. It is by limiting itself to an area of specific functions (Article I, Section 8) that the “State” separates itself from those areas then left to the “Church,” that is, the various private (i.e., consensual) institutions formed by a free people wherein to practice their diverse beliefs. (With the Fourteenth Amendment, the “State” came to subsume also the state governments. See Michael Kent Curtis’ No State Shall Abridge: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Bill of Rights.)

Regrettably, most of this is lost on today’s self-designated “civil libertarians,” who have instead distilled the metaphor — and thus the amendment — to mean: “Where the State is, the Church cannot be.” But here the “State” is the interventionist state. As this government bursts its original boundaries and expands into previously separated areas, their native institutions must be purged of all expressions of religious conviction. It is ultimately a theory of, not classical liberal Church-State separation, but state imperialism — i.e., not secularism, but socialism. And if you’ve never seen it stated quite so explicitly, we’ve all witnessed it being implemented publicly for decades.

With socialized education consolidated, medicine is the next area where the Anti-Religious Left will turn, especially with the focus on the issue that will follow Michael Moore’s pro-socialization Sicko (more praise for the French!) and the race for 2008. A microcosm of what’s to come can be found in New York State’s 2002 passage of the “Women’s Wellness Act.” As the Rev. William Murphy, bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, explained in a 2/14/02 Newsday op-ed:

As written, this bill maintains that government shall decide what constitutes religion and what does not, what is Catholic and what is not. What this bill will require is that the Catholic Church and other religious bodies pay for employee insurance coverage that they believe is morally impermissible.

This insistence that religious bodies must compromise their beliefs is, or should be, especially chilling for all Americans who believe religious freedom is part of our American heritage….

We cannot … accept that in our hospitals and clinics there is to be mandatory insurance coverage for contraception, including methods and devices that cause abortion. These contradict our faith, and they force us either to break the law or deny the teaching of our church. This denial of our right to offer health care in accordance with our faith is a violation of our right to religious freedom according to the First Amendment.

Amen. But how would this legislation be seen from the perspective of the “liberal” perversion of the First Amendment? Eight days later, Newsday printed this letter:

The Rev. William Murphy charges that the state Senate’s Women’s Wellness Act interferes with the freedom of religion.

But this misrepresents the bill, which simply requires that employers include contraception and other essential women’s health care services in their comprehensive health plans….

In fact, the bill restores the separation of church and state in the insurance market. It has become common practice for employers and insurance companies that claim a religious affiliation to deny insurance coverage for basic health care services on religious grounds, even when most of their customers and employees are not of the faith. When a religious institution hires and serves the public primarily, it should play by the public rules. Employees of many faiths who work for religious charities, for example, and serve the public should not have their employers’ religion dictate their health benefits.

The Senate bill properly respects free exercise of religion. It also recognizes that the Constitution will not tolerate the state’s establishment of religion — a principle Murphy fails to appreciate.

Observe what is necessary to bring a minimum of coherence to the argument: an equivocation between “the public primarily” — the private citizens who work for or patronize these private institutions — and “the public rules” — the dictates that government wants to force upon these private parties. The “bill restores the separation of church and state in the insurance market” only in the sense that when the “State” invades that market, the “Church” must go — state imperialism in practice. Observe also the real motive: the dubious insulation of employees from what Leftism labels the “economic power” of employers. In practical terms, prospective employees who don’t like the benefits package offered by a religious employer will flock to his secular competitors — something that millions of people do every day. (Conversely, there are many religious “customers and employees” who very much want a company that reflects their values — something that “progressives” have no problem understanding when it involves their values.) Finally, observe the fundamental principle: Socialist imperatives supersede civil liberties — déjà vu encore une fois.

Oh, who wrote it? Donna Lieberman. And? The editor’s note says that she “is executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union” — officially. Unofficially, she’s just another mole of the Anti-Religious Left.

The unidentified nature of the Anti-Religious Left has actually proved to be its greatest strength — note the increasing implicit acceptance of its premises. The Theocratic Right, because of its openness with its goals, is widely monitored and fiercely countered. The Theocratic Left, by denying that it is in any way theocratic, has been able to leap over the wall of separation (e.g., our “Social Gospel” welfare state). But the Anti-Religious Left, whose existence no one even acknowledges, has a clear path to batter down that wall. What will be left standing is a nation of socialized everything, where an American citizen, like a Soviet citizen, can practice his religion only within the confines of his own skull.

Barry Loberfeld [send him mail] is an educator, writer, journalist, and Libertarian Party official based on LI, NY. Visit his website.

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