Church/State issue takes center stage again

Presidential candidate Rick Santorum has triggered one of my hot buttons. I was going to write more about Lent but perhaps this season is a good time to examine a volatile issue in American politics, which divides Christians and hurts the conservative vote.

The issue is the separation of church and state. The current mainstream conservative and liberal understandings of this issue are incorrect. In a nutshell, the conservatives believe that this country was founded on Christian principles; therefore, this country should be ruled by Christian thinking - it should be a "Christian" nation.  Liberals go the other way, believing that church and state should never be mixed. The case going on in New York City regarding whether or not churches can rent public school buildings is an example of liberal ideology.

To see what Santorum is saying on this issue, check out this article:

Santorum: Separation of Church and State Not Absolute; Obama Is 'Snob'

A quote:

"I don't believe in America the separation of church and state is absolute," Santorum told host George Stephanopoulos. "The idea that the church can have no influence or involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country. This is the First Amendment. The First Amendment says 'free exercise of religion,' that means bringing everybody, people of faith and no faith into the public square. Kennedy for the first time articulated a vision saying faith is not allowed in the public square."

Santorum was referring to a speech made by then presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, who, if elected, would become the first Catholic president in American history. Santorum says that Kennedy's speech, which was meant to calm frayed Protestant nerves at the time, "... makes me want to throw up."

The thing is that Kennedy's speech says nothing about faith not being allowed in the public square.

You can hear it for yourself here: Kennedy's speech.

Here's a snippet from that speech:

But let me say, with respect to other countries, that I am wholly opposed to the state being used by any religious group, Catholic or Protestant, to compel, prohibit, or persecute the free exercise of any other religion.

Kennedy understood that the First Amendment offers not only protections for individuals to practice their religions without interference from the state, but also the converse: that the state is to be free from interference from religion.

Here is another excerpt:

Whatever issue may come before me as President--on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject--I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.

Read the full speech here.

In his speech, Kennedy says that he would rely on his conscience to help him decide matters of national interest. As a boy, his conscience was heavily influenced by Catholicism, so in effect, Christian teaching would be used to shape his decisions. And this is where religion and the state should meet - in the conscience of each of us as individuals. It should not be otherwise.

This is where the Founders intended the two to meet: in the lives of the people who ran the representative government by their vote. As long as the people who governed America wanted a moral government that relied on Christian values that's what they would have. However, they did not want a religious institution or group to govern the country as was the case in many of the European countries from whence they came.

In England and other countries, your religion was based upon the religion of the monarch. If it was otherwise, it was at your peril.  If the monarch happened to be a Protestant then the country was Protestant. Catholics were not tolerated, often to the point of brutal and savage death. It was the reverse if the monarch happened to be Catholic.

Unfortunately, this was happening in America as well. The Puritans did not tolerate any other religion than their own brand of Christianity. They fled Europe to avoid persecution, but they did not in the least mind persecuting others. In our nation's early days, before we became a nation, Christian churches had no compunctions about persecuting other Christians of the 'wrong' denomination. While that statement may drive Glen Beck to a state of apoplexy, it is well-documented fact, not 'revisionist history.' This is when the Founders began to write on this issue and these writings shaped our country's political thought.

We see an example of religion controlling the state in today's world, in the Middle East, with sharia law.  There are many Christians in Muslim countries who are being persecuted and killed because they refuse to renounce their faith. We also see Muslims killing other Muslims for not being the 'right kind' of Muslims - Sunni against Shi'ite. Is this what we want in America for anyone? Isn't it better that Muslims are free to worship the way they want and Christians and Jews are allowed to do the same? And atheists, who should be free to worship anything or nothing at all?

Yet, in spite of historical and modern examples, many Christians in our country insist that the nation should be run by Christian government when history shows that our Founders borrowed thought from the Romans, Jews, Greeks, Christians and others.

Why don't we get this? Why are we Americans allowing good debate on the important issues - like the economy, like education of our kids, like healthcare - to be usurped by an issue that shouldn't matter? Why is this so important for conservatives? They need to refocus because the non-issue has pretty much killed their political viability in my book. After 22 years as a registered Republican, I am giving serious consideration to becoming an Independent.