There is a growing tide of opinion in this country that religion and government should be intertwined. This view tends to be most widely held by evangelical Christians, who believe that society would benefit if Christianity played an official role in government.

(A recent Civil Beat poll found that 11 percent of likely voters in Hawaii believed Christianity should play an official role in government.)

Those who hold this view have begun questioning the Constitutional principle of Separation of Church and State. Despite its name, this principle applies equally to any religion, so it could also be called the Separation of Temple and State, or the Separation of Mosque and State.

Hawaii state capitol

The Hawaii State Capitol

This important principle derives from the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, which reads, in its striking simplicity and brevity:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The United States Constitution and its Bill of Rights is in many ways an extraordinary document, and a reading of its First Amendment brings that to life.

The phrase “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” is referred to as the Establishment Clause, and is the basis for the principle of Separation of Church/Temple/Mosque and State. Combined with the phrase “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” known as the Free Exercise Clause, this short sentence is what guarantees Americans of all faiths (or no faith) the freedom to worship (or not) as they like, and freedom from the oppression of a state-sponsored religion.

Some argue that allowing Christianity to play an official role in government would make communities stronger by promoting morality and faith. While faith plays an important role in encouraging morality, social cohesion and justice, government-sponsored or government-favored religion brings a whole host of problems.

Ask the Christians who live in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran is a theocracy — a country whose government allows religion to play an official role, where God is considered the highest authority, superseding civil authority. In this case, it’s the God of Islam, and His authority is interpreted by human beings under His divine guidance. The rights of religious minorities like Christians are guaranteed under the Iranian Constitution, but they are still subject to the higher divine authority of Islam.

Would an American Christian feel she had the right to the free exercise of her religion living in Iran, despite those guarantees? Not likely. It’s obvious that the free exercise of religion is impacted by government-sponsored religion.

For example, even short of an official theocracy, a government official like a Governor needs to be mindful of the environment she creates by encouraging prayer under her particular faith. While her intentions would be positive, her sponsorship, constant presence and active encouragement of others to attend would undoubtedly make people of different (or no) faith feel that they might fall out of favor with an important official by not attending.

Does the pressure of official sponsorship conflict with not “prohibiting the free exercise” of one’s religion? The Iranian Government doesn’t think so, because it doesn’t “prohibit” the exercise of any religion.

What do you think?

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