This whole kerfuffle over Obama’s dictates about abortion, contraception, and reproductive rights has the left arguing their usual nonsense about keeping church and state separate. Rooted in their argument is a basic ignorance of the Constitution and its purpose. Professor Obama is first among these ignoramuses. The reason the First Amendment of the Constitution is worded in such a way is to prevent “the Church” from becoming a political actor and keeps federal involvement out of religion. It is precisely for these reasons we passed the First Amendment. There was no “the Church shall make no law” clause because it had no political power, and no mechanism to get power. In fact, the entire argument is moot simply because of the way the First Amendment keeps religion and government at arm’s length from one another.
First of all, “the Church” doesn’t even exist, at least not in the way the left argues it.
The wording of the First Amendment is as follows:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”
Let’s remember something important from that time. When the framers and the amenders were constructing the federal government, contemporaneously, England and France had state religions. In France, the First Estate of the Estates-General, their parliament, was comprised entirely of church leaders. They weren’t elected. They weren’t advisory. They were a fundamental part of the government of France. The French state had a church that had actual political power. In England, the Church of England had high church officials in the House of Lords. They could pass legislation. They were a part of the government. They weren’t elected either. Yet they exercised power over the laws of England.
Meanwhile, in America, while there were established state churches, they didn’t have independent political authority. There were no bishops or abbots or sect deacons who were in government as direct representatives of the church. While these state churches did get money from the government, they didn’t have any political power, as “the church.” Ministers and preachers were elected to state legislatures, but as popularly elected representatives of the community and not of the church. In France and England parliamentary representatives were answerable to the church itself. In America, they were answerable to ordinary voters regardless of religion.
So when a progressive/socialist makes an argument about keeping “the Church” out of the government, they are making a ludicrous argument. We don’t have an official church nor do we have political representatives that answer to a “church.” Our representatives answer to the citizens. If you don’t like the actions of a representative, you can throw them out irrespective of their or your religious beliefs.
Now churches can certainly influence voters and public representatives. But influence isn’t control. Our society has elected to give government a monopoly on corporal power over us. Churches may control their members through argument, expelling, or benefits. But churches in the United States don’t have actual control over their members or anyone else for that matter.
In England, ecclesiastical courts had jurisdiction over certain civil matters like tithes owed, family disposition, and probate until the middle of the 19th century. While they didn’t have powers like in the late Middle Ages, church courts had the right to fine, imprison, and impugn the character of a litigant. For certain offenses, a kind of character record would have been created and used by the state courts to determine a person’s reliability or honesty. The Church, in England and on the Continent, had actual temporal power over human beings.
In the colonies and then the states, the closest things to church courts were the Salem witch trials in the 1600’s. Even then, the trials were conducted by state sanctioned authorities and not church authorities. Americans simply didn’t have official churches controlling their behavior. Churches influenced law and belief systems but it was a far cry from the Inquisitions or the English ‘bawdy’ courts for fornicators and other sexual offenses. Best an American church could do was to throw you out of the congregation. Not exactly the same as imprisonment or financial punishments.
When the slack-jawed Left howls derision at “the Church,” they are swinging at shadows. When they argue Rick Santorum wants to create a theocracy, it’s ridiculous. For a theocracy to exist, it would have to have political power independent of democratic votes, like in Iran. Iran is a theocracy because an appointed board of mullahs decides who can run for office and what power those positions will have. If the elected officials don’t comport with their dictates, these unelected clerics have the power to depose civil authorities. The Islamic ‘mosque’ is in fact in control.
There is no such board of unelected clerics who can do such a thing and no way for it to be formed. Even if such a thing could be imagined, it wouldn’t work. We are a religiously plural society. If the Roman Catholics ran the board, the larger Protestant sects would get that board nullified. If the Baptists ran such a thing, the Methodists would get it rescinded. Should any one group gain such power, the republic would spit them out. This is all possible because the Amenders demanded those few simple words added to the Constitution.
Since Congress cannot establish an official religion, it cannot give independent power to any religious body. Since Congress doesn’t have authority to stop the practice of any religious group, these groups remain free to gather adherents giving no one church dominance in the country. These few words written and enacted over two hundred years ago have been very successful at keeping religion and government free from one another. As long as we hold these tenets dear and free from government meddling, we will continue to have freedom of religion. It is only when the Left’s tentacles reach out and futz with our freedom that we need to worry.
It is government that is the entangler and not the church. Only big, intrusive government can ruin this arrangement. Let’s make sure we don’t let them try.
Crossposted at Looktruenorth.com