The U.S. Constitution speaks to a very limited extent on the topic of religion. Article 6 sets forth that, “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” This really didn’t cover much ground outside of requirements for officers of the state, so the First Amendment to this Constitution (out of twenty-seven to date) declared, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
To be fair, it doesn’t consider religion to be a minor point, but actually speaks to a limited extent on most topics with an overarching view of freedom. This is the reason why we have the judicial branch of government, as it has the power to elaborate on such limited words and define a broader view given new context in modern times. Of course, in the early days of the Republic, the framers of the Constitution were still alive and able to clarify their intent. In a letter written by Thomas Jefferson, he said, “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
This laid the groundwork for the term we modern Americans often toss around with little thought for its meaning, “separation of church and state.” Of course, there are numerous other historical records pointing to the opinions of many of these framers showing that the vast majority held that at least some separation was needed. The only significant differences of opinion came from the extent to which they wanted that separation, but in the end, the majority appears to have held to the spirit of total separation.
And I agree with them. I would even say that without this separation, a true democracy can not exist. It is as necessary as having three branches of government–it provides checks and balances that prevent those in each sphere from gaining a monopoly on power. For when forces which hold so much sway over so many join together, it is inevitable that each will conform to the will of the other and many individuals will end up wounded in the process. And in a nation of such drastic diversity (it was drastic at its birth, and has grown far more so), founded as a means of escaping hostilities and hardships due to oppression against those founders’ religions in their homelands, for any single denomination or religion to establish itself as ruler of the land would defeat the very purpose and plunge the nation into a reversal of such progress of liberty.
As a devout Christian, I find myself thankful for this separation. Throughout history, there have been countless systems of belief of the nature and purpose of our existence. And history has taught us that whichever of these systems holds the hilt inevitably uses the blade against those threatening their power. And since I feel my religion is not meant to have the grip, I’m thankful when it also doesn’t have to feel the gash.
But I wonder if we’ve gone too far in a number of ways. For the very nature of this concept is to prevent the body of the government from promoting or preventing any religion. And in that spirit, would it not be a trampling of one’s rights to prevent the study of one’s religion in school? Would it be unacceptable to allow a time for each student to privately review their religious and cultural heritage? What if that’s the desire of the parents or of the children? Those without religion could opt to study why they don’t believe, and zero rights would be trampled on. And for those who feel that children would be wasting time on their own and we wouldn’t have enough teachers to give each one proper time, I give you modern internet learning. Parents can approve the course, and students can partake privately through headphones.
This proposal would implant in each child a deeper sense of why they do what they do. Perhaps that deeper sense would lead some to stop believing–I’ve found this to be inevitable for many. And perhaps it would cause others to find the real meaning in what they believe–also inevitable for many. Either way, I believe that this practice would benefit the whole of society. After all, those who berate faith tend to do so from the basis that adherents to faith aren’t thinking about why they believe. And history has taught us that a number of the religiously based atrocities of the past (including atheist’s purging religions altogether) have come from those who act on their beliefs without a thought to why. So through this simple removal of impediments to liberty, we would be building a more stable democracy for all.