The act of a politician lying is old as the Republic. Likewise, a member of the media supporting that politician’s lie is just as old.
It was no surprise when former Delaware senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell questioned the existence of “separation of church and state” in our constitution, Rush Limbaugh agreed with her.
As a James Madison College student, I thought I would set the record straight.
This view has gained traction on the right throughout the last half-century. In my judgment, it reflects a knee-jerk reaction to some on the left in American politics equating “separation of church and state” with banning religion from all walks of American life.
Knowing the plurality of the American public is religious, the right has responded with an equally false narrative: The separation is a threat to religiosity in America and takes away from a founding based on Christianity.
On its face, the U.S. Constitution rejects these views from the far left and right. The First Amendment states that Congress “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The widely recognized interpretation has been a legal separation between religion and politics. But probing the deeper contexts surrounding the Constitution reveal the meanings behind its implementation.
The Federalist Papers are a collection of newspaper articles and essays our founders wrote to debate about the institutions which govern us. Examining these documents illustrates that our Founding Fathers, while being men of deep faith, were not arguing about religion during the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
They were debating Baron de Montesquieu’s conception of federalism, how to guard against tyranny of the majority and how best to preserve the rights of the individual — including one’s right to worship as he or she pleases.
At one point, when things seemed to be going nowhere, James Madison famously stopped the convention for a moment of prayer. He did so in the hope that the men assembled could design a government that would allow them to work, pray and live freer than before. The pause was religious and simultaneously secular, a balance of which they were proud.
Furthermore, the history of faith in America continues this tradition. Americans have understood faith belongs within the context of religious scriptures, the communities that worship them and spirituality itself. Citizens of every faith, not the government, have created the structures for worship, community service and faith-based initiatives.
Admittedly, with issues ranging from prayer in school to the Pledge of Allegiance, this balance hasn’t been perfect. But by any measure, a relative separation between religion and government has remained.
Ironically, Limbaugh runs a radio show dedicated to promoting limited government. For someone who claims to champion government restraint, he conveniently has glossed over our most cherished traditions of decentralized spirituality.
The U.S. Constitution does not allow for the egregious theft of religious freedom that occurs in social democracies in Europe or autocracies in the Middle East. Unlike France, America cannot mandate that a Sikh, like me, be denied the right to wear a turban in public schools.
Unlike Tehran, Washington, D.C., cannot outlaw social sciences in universities on the basis of inconsistency with one faith’s teachings. Only the American conception of liberal democracy has afforded citizens the right to worship or not worship free from an overreaching government.
Considering this, I would hope the far right would stop claiming this fundamental element of American life is a threat to religion or Christianity, specifically. No credible person who has read our founding documents or studied our history can make such an argument when discussing America’s religious experience.
If anything, the opposite is true. Scholars who have written on America, such as Alexis de Tocqueville, have praised the American religious experience for following in the participatory, decentralized tradition of our democracy.
Defending the separation of church and state simply is a matter of defending the institutions and traditions that make America exceptional. Without it, the right for Christians to attend church and Sikhs to attend gurdwara every Sunday would not exist.
And Limbaugh never ought to forget that.
Ameek Singh is a State News guest columnist. Reach him at email@example.com.
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