I'm not going to argue the question regarding the size of the government. Anyone who has read my blog knows that I am not for small government." I'm for a government that is large enough and robust enough to do what is necessary to enable this nation to fill full all of its most wonderful promises. That is another post.
What I want to talk about today i a piece that really has been puzzling me. With the horrendous violence at the Sandy Hook school, there has been a strong theme among some right wing folk, mostly evangelical Christians, but not exclusively so. They have argued that we can expect violence in schools because we have legislated God out of the schools. Their answer is to "bring God back into our schools."
Well... nobody has legislated God out of anywhere - you can't do that or prohibited anything. Indeed, there is literally no way to stop prayer from taking place in schools even if you wanted to. Beyond that, religious organizations are specifically allowed in any school that allows any kind of outside organizations. The concern seems only to be about having the 10 commandments posted, prayers at school events, and the like.
First, let me share a history lesson. The idea of separation of church and state did not begin with secular liberals. It was an idea that came from a few very brave and very inspired religious groups. Many of the early settlers of the United States came from Europe fleeing religious persecution. Most, like the pilgrims, arrived here and immediately set about building the same kinds of prohibitions under which they had suffered only attacking everyone who wasn't like them. Two groups however realized that faith is an issue that is decided between and individual's conscience and God. The Baptists (yes, the Baptists) and the Quakers argued and institutionalized the idea that government and religion needed to be separated. The famous phrase of a "wall of separation" that does not appear in the constitution actually came from a letter written by Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association, assuring them that he would work for a complete separation of Church and State, restricting the government from any interference in religious practice.
So, here are my questions... how is it that these folk who argue for "small government" want to insert the government into this most personal and important of issues of conscience? How is it that these folk who do not trust government to do virtually anything want to give the government the responsibility of religious teaching? If government was actually given that power, who would decide what it looks like? Would the school principal write the prayers? Or the town mayor? Would they be representative of the divergence of the population of the area or would they just be watered down until everyone could agree (as if that could ever happen)? Maybe someone from the Westboro Baptist Church could pray for the damnation of all of the children present... or a Santaria priest could sacrifice a chicken. Maybe an Imam could read in Arabic from the Koran or a gay Episcopalian priest from the Book of Common Prayer. Maybe a Mennonite could pray for the abolition of the military or a fundamentalist Mormon could prayer for the re-establishment of polygamy. You get the picture.
As a Baptist pastor, a committed Christian, and a person who takes my faith very, very seriously, I do not want the government teaching my children, grandchildren, or church members issues of faith. I do not want to give those folk the power to dictate the content of their prayers or of their religious interpretations. I am not interested in prayers that offend nobody because they mean nothing and I am not interested in prayers that offend me because I do not agree with their meaning. I am not interested in the 10 commandments published anywhere on government properties because at least half of them have to do with cultic issues and are irrelevant as social policy.
I do trust the government to build social safety nets. I do trust the government as the best way to administer health care. I do trust the government as the best way to provide education, the common defense, and to address many many cultural concerns. I do not trust the government to handle religion and as a minority religious group (and anyone who takes faith seriously in the US is a member of a minority religious group) the only role government has with regards to faith is to keeps its hands off and to make sure that the broader culture keeps its hands off. I agree with Jefferson that those words in the first amendment establish a wall of separation and pray that it will never be breached.