HIGH WALL OF SEPARATION?
Thomas’ Jefferson’s high wall of separation has proven to be a misleading metaphor. Initially, it should be observed that it is not contained in the Constitution, although one might get that impression from many who comment on it. Moreover, it was coined to keep government from intruding into the realm of the church, rather than the reverse. So while it may have a superficial appeal, its application is notably suspect.
Conversely, the first amendment to the Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The non-establishment clause has been interpreted as disallowing the government from authorizing a national religion or showing preferential treatment. While its free exercise counterpart is meant to allow access into public discourse and affirmative action.
Now C. S. Lewis aptly pointed out that we tend to err in one regard or its opposite. So that in attempting to evade one problem, we fall prey to another. Which requires that we steer between the two. This would seem to be a prime case in point, so that in avoiding the non-establishment of religion, we infringe on its free exercise. And the reverse.
What qualifies as a religion may also be in question. For instance, Paul Tillich observed that what serves instead of religion, is in fact religion. Since the term implies to one’s ultimate concern. In this regard, one needs to be reminded that it is more often the lesser good than the blatant evil that keeps us from pursuing the greater good. For the Christian, the greater good concerns glorifying God, and enjoying him forever.
Given this line of reasoning, a secular establishment is no less acceptable than a designated religious establishment. Since both require conformity in an area where constructive diversity should be allowed. For instance, some years ago I was serving a church in South Boston, MA. Prayer was to be offered at a public event, and this was customarily done by a Roman Catholic priest. Understandably, since our church poll revealed almost 90 % were of that persuasion. But when an alternative was suggested, this was rejected. Which might be construed as indicative of a religious establishment. Incidentally, I am not of either ecclesiastical body.
Current events repeatedly indicate a poor grasp of the issue. For instance, the standards set by the new health insurance program conflict with the religious convictions of some. While the alternatives fail to address the issue.
All of which recalls what is said to be the divine mandates. These are four in number: pertaining to family, labor, governance, and the church. All of which can be readily illustrated from Scripture. These derive their authentication from God, and are accountable to him. Whether this is recognized or not. As such, they are meant to cooperate with one another, rather than compete. As when one attempts to restrict the legitimate role of another.
Accordingly, when government officials promote an equality of income, it would appear to violate the labor mandate. While to address the needs of the poverty stricken seems valid. And supposing that a graduated income tax may be permissible, whether preferable or not.
Then, too, the separation of powers within governance should be carefully observed. For instance, it is the prerogative of the legislative branch to enact laws, for the judicial branch to faithfully interpret them, and the executive branch to administer them. While the Constitution should be honored throughout. Much as one would do with reference to a covenant.
While bearing in mind that the notion of covenant is implicit in social relationships. As an example, it is said that the common meal qualifies. This, in turn, recalls a time when my wife and I were invited to eat with an Arab family living in Bethlehem. We were hesitant to accept the offer, for fear that our vehicle might be damaged. However, the father assured us that he would notify his neighbors, and they as a corporate task would protect it. As was the case.
It should also be borne in mind, as affirmed by Abraham Lincoln, a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Consequently, a government amenable to the will of the populace, constituted of their duly elected officials, and meant to serve their interests. Rather than promote its own or some other elitist agenda.
It also serves to distinguish between strategies and goals. So while we may agree to assist those caught up in involuntary poverty, there may be a legitimate difference of opinions as how best to go about it. Rather than demonizing those who disagree with us.
In these and other respects, we are accountable to God. Again, whether we admit it or not. So that we must allow both for those who recognize this and those who do not. This, too, is in keeping with the non-establishment, free exercise edict.
To live is to change. But the more some things change, the more that others appear constant. It is a wise person who can distinguish between the two. So also with a functional society.
It also seems incumbent on us to leave the world a better place than we found it. If within our corporate capability. But we find it easier to criticize the efforts of others, than to provide constructive alternatives. And often more gratifying. In Jewish terms, we should strive against this evil inclination.
If what I have said makes sense, please reflect further on it, and act accordingly. If not, improve on it and commend the results to others. As my beloved mother was want to say, “Take a load when you go.” Or as otherwise expressed, do not expect others to do for you what you are unwilling to do for yourself.
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