WHEN THE U.S. Constitution was ratified, Jews looked to this new country as a place where they would be safe from persecution, not only because they were guaranteed the freedom of religion, but also the freedom from a government-established religion.
“The civil government functions with complete success by the total separation of the Church from the State.” (James Madison)
George Washington, in his letter to the Jewish Congregation of Newport, promised this new government would protect the rights of all religious groups.
“For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.”
Washington’s letter became the foundation of American religious liberty and the principle of separation of church and state.
The First Amendment to our Constitution states unequivocally that the government should not establish any religion, and the courts have consistently ruled that any hint of support for a particular faith is unconstitutional.
The Constitution never mentions God, and states that there may be no religious test for public office.
The Founding Fathers were adamant that religion and government remain separate because they had seen the results of centuries of religious wars in Europe, and the earliest colonial experiment had failed miserably in guaranteeing religious freedom to its citizens.
The Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony was a theocracy, and those who broke religious laws were arrested, punished, lost their land and were sometimes exiled to the wilderness, a fate which could be fatal.
The Salem Witch Trials were the tragic result of such a theocracy.
Though religious liberty in the United States has enabled people of all faiths to thrive, unfortunately there have been violations of this principle, with some leaders trying to impose religious precepts into law.
For example, in recent discussions of the immigration crisis, government leaders invoked the Bible to defend border policies, and competing verses were used to defend or attack the policies.
The concern is not which Bible verse should be used, but why any religious text was being considered in making national policy.
In selecting Supreme Court justices, discussions have swirled over issues such as LBGTQ and abortion rights, and the Muslim ban, triggering religious debates amongst ordinary citizens, which is to be expected.
But government officials, instead of working with those from all political persuasions, consulted a list which had approval from conservative religious leaders to select a justice.
Thus, religion became a criteria for political office.
Recently, a government religious task force was formed, ostensibly to protect religious liberty.
But only those of conservative Christian faiths support this entity, claiming they are being religiously persecuted.
Notice there are no Jewish, Muslim, Sikh or other minority faiths — who face sometimes violent persecution — endorsing this task force.
A conservative columnist recently bemoaned decisions which he says are responsible for “de-Christianizing all public institutions in America.”
One wonders why these agencies were “Christianized” in the first place?
As Thomas Jefferson said, “Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law. … I am for freedom of religion and against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another.”
The Founding Fathers repeatedly warned against the collusion of religion and government.
“Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law. Take away the law-establishment, and every religion re-assumes original benignity.” (Thomas Paine)
By using religion rather than the Constitution to pass laws, we risk religious tyranny.
People of all faiths have been drawn to our country, not only for the freedom to worship, but also the freedom from having one faith embedded into law.
“States that are built on a religious foundation limit their own people in a circle of faith and fear,” warned author and Saudi dissident, Raif Badawi.
The Rev. Robert Sirico, a Catholic priest, said, “Theocracy is the destruction of human freedom in the name of God.”
We must remain vigilant against any trend leading our democracy toward a theocracy.
Our very liberty depends it.
Kein yehi Ratzon … may it be God’s will. Shalom.
Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. Suzanne DeBey is a lay leader of the Port Angeles Jewish community. Her email is [email protected]