This year’s Republican primary has brought the return of the culture war: the war between those who some allege to be godly against others presumed to be ungodly; the war between those who insist they are moral against those who are found to be immoral. Front and center in the culture war this year has been contraception, most notably things like the birth control pill, the morning after pill, and similar means by which women regulate and control their fertility. Recently it has seemed like the Republicans are more interested in the politics of women’s wombs than the politics of the United States.
This focus on morality in politics is deeply entangled with the question of religion in politics. For example, most of the Republicans advocating a culture war against contraception are Catholics, and have been using their Catholic values to frame their opposition to birth control, abortion and the like. Evangelical Protestants offer their own list of demands derived from their religious precepts (creationism, pro-life, etc.). Others make other claims.
The logic is clear: religion is our understanding of God’s dictates; linking state policy to God’s ensures that we will have a Godly nation.
But while the logic is clear, it is also profoundly, utterly and absolutely wrong.
First, as the Framers recognized, all claims that we should impose God’s law on the state rest on the assumption that it will be OUR version of God’s law that gets imposed on everyone else. We assume that we’ll get our laws passed into state policy—not that we will have to live by others’ values.
But there is no logical reason to make this assumption. One can win or lose any political struggle, and it may well be that your moral opinion is in the minority. At which point you might face state sanction if you practice your beliefs against state policy. Hence the Framers created a generally neutral Constitution: barring some extremes, the state is neutral as to whatever religion you practice. The notion is that the only way to really protect religious freedom is to ensure that no one gets to impose anything on anyone—again, barring some extremes (e.g., human sacrifice).
The Framers also recognized a second reason to oppose the linkage of state and religion—a reason that the advocates for tight relationships between church and state simply ignore. This is that while people fantasize that when church and state are closely linked the church will shape the morality of that state, in the real world what happens is that the state runs the church. Government has the guns and the thugs and the power; religious leaders mostly fall in line out of self-preservation or the desire for promotion.
Think I’m kidding? Then go read some stuff about the transition of Christianity from an obscure sect of radicals on the fringes of the world into the state religion of the Roman Empire. Re-examine the rise of Protestantism, particularly in Henry VIII’s creation of the Church of England.
Governments run churches when churches engage with states. Which is why any advocate of religious freedom ought to hold as their first principle: keep church and state separate, at least as much as possible. It’s the only way the church can survive with its morality intact.
So seriously, Republicans: if you love religion, stop trying to make the state comply with its laws. It’s the only way to save your faith.