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Separation of church and state

Fri, May 6th, 2005
Posted in Commentary

Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist recently appeared on a national television program which accused his Democratic colleagues of acting “against people of faith.” During the same broadcast, self-proclaimed evangelist, James Dobson, called the United States Supreme Court “the despotism of an oligarchy” for its supposed “campaign to limit religious liberty.” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay tells anyone who will listen that he is being persecuted for his Christian virtues, rather than prosecuted for his corrupt vices.

If those men and others like them have their way, they will divide this country between the people and policies on “God’s side” and those on the other side. They, of course, are always on God’s side. Whoever they disagree with and whatever they disapprove of are always on the other side.

I know many people of religious faith and serving in public office, including myself, who sincerely pray for God’s wisdom in our personal and professional lives. However, praying for Divine guidance is very different from publicly proclaiming always to have it.

Unfortunately, religion can be misused by charlatans to serve their own ambitions. Guess what aspiring politician, in the midst of a national election, stated, “I am convinced that nothing will happen to me, for I know the greatness of the task for which Providence has chosen me.” It was Adolf Hitler, in 1932. While no one in our nation’s politics today compares with Adolph Hitler, his statement shows that there is no limit to the misuse of “Providence.”

Our country’s founders understood human nature, especially under the influences of ambition, power, and greed. So, they established our nation on certain unalienable, God-given rights: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Those rights could not be taken away by any person or any government, except by laws made “with the consent of the governed.”

To protect our rights and freedoms, they wrote a Constitution, which established checks and balances among three separate and equal branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial. President Thomas Jefferson wrote, “In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” Despite their best efforts, many of our first leaders were pessimistic that our country’s promises of equal rights and protections could survive the dark side of human nature. In his Farewell Address, President George Washington said, “The spirit of encroachment tries to absorb the powers of the several branches and departments (of government) into one, and thus to establish, under whatever forms, a despotism.”

Today, those who would “absorb the powers . . . into one” threaten to do serious damage to our democracy. I shuddered when President Bush, in his speech last year to the Republican National Convention, promised, “Nothing will hold us back.” That is the attitude of Senators who would eliminate 216 years of accumulated Senate wisdom so that they can get all of President Bush’s judicial nominees confirmed. During President Bush’s first term, the Senate approved 206 of his nominees for lifetime appointments as federal judges. Democrats used long-standing Senate rules to block 10 other nominees, for what we believed were very important reasons. That is unacceptable to Republican Senators, even though they used other Senate rules to deny “up-or-down” votes to 69 of President Bill Clinton’s judicial nominees.

As a member of the minority political party, it is bad enough to be called an “obstructionist,” as though our opposition to appointments or legislation is improper. Our dissent is part of the “noise of democracy,” and members of the majority party should respect it, even as they rightfully disagree with it.

They are wrong, however, to contend that our legitimate disagreements are actions “against people of faith.” Our fellow citizens can properly judge for themselves who they believe are right and wrong on any particular issue. They can rightfully vote us into and out of office. But which of us are, or are not, on “God’s side” is for only God to decide.

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