Why the Religious Should Value Secular Governance

Polls have consistently shown that the vast majority of Americans and clergy across different faiths, denominations, and political persuasions favor restricting political activity by churches and nonprofits (notwithstanding the existing workarounds they already use anyway).

That is because these institutions are already exempt from taxes and most reporting requirements, meaning they would be at risk of becoming channels for dark money into politics. Most people of faith do not want their churches corrupted by politics. This was a major impetus for separation of church and state being enshrined from the very beginning of American history, mostly by and with support from devout people.

This separation also prevents denominations of the same faith from using the state to undermine each other. Recall that by the time the Founders had promulgated a secular state, Europeans had been killing each other for centuries over theological and sectarian differences (in fact, historically more Christians died at the hands of other Christians than from anyone else). Rulers of one form of Christian would kill or oppress subjects of another. They would impose their own form of faith with the violence of the state.

Indeed, when people talk about promoting a “Christian” policy or government, they ignore the very different doctrinal, social, and political attitudes of Christians. What would stop a Catholic government from imposing canon law on protestants? Or Episcopalians from passing-religiously justified laws against the more conservative Southern Baptists? A secular state leaves such matters out of public policy and lets Christians sort these things out amongst themselves without violence (be it state-sanctioned or private).

Ironically, a major reason the U.S. is so unusually religious for a developed country is precisely because religion never got as tainted with government violence and political corruption as it did in Europe. We have a diverse number of churches and sects because there was no government of one religious persuasion or another suppressing them. (Obviously, the track record has not been perfect in this regard — see the long history of persecution and discrimination, often with government support or approval, directed at Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormons; we just happen to be the least bad by Western historical standards.)

I will end with Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to a Baptist congregation concerned about their lack of protections in the U.S. Constitution:

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. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

In short, keeping religion out of politics is in everyone’s best interests: perhaps most of all for the religious themselves.

What are your thoughts?

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