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Church and State at Christmas

There's been quite a public brouhaha this year about church and state and the religious vs. secular holiday season. It happens every year around this time, but this year it feels unusually aggressive. People aren't lamenting, they're angry.

And where there's dispute, your Cap'n is eager to take sides. As usual, both camps will be quick to distance themselves from him.

Last year I said a little about the holiday. This year it isn't the holiday that interests me. It's the whole "separation of church and state" kerfluffle.

The Constitution says "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office" (Article VI) and that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;" (Amendment I). That's it. By a plain reading, this simply bound the hands of Congress. Then Amendment XIV extended it to the States. Does a city's Christmas decorations constitute a "law respecting an establishment of religion"? I don't think so. But I'm not a legal scholar, and I understand many of the Founding Fathers endorsed a wider than literal interpretation of the text.

So let's forget about the actual law. Let's talk about theory instead. What principle should guide interactions between church and state? In a word, don't.

Any approach of government toward the realm of ideas is a cause for concern. Government is force. Ideas are reason. These two are are fundamentally immiscible. It's fine for government to recognize religion (or more broadly, ideology) but it absolutely must not endorse it. I'm uncomfortable even with the notion of government endorsing the ideas contained in (and elaborated from) its founding documents, although that's the most plausible exception.

Government should not be involved in education. At all. Not in the slightest degree. The only difference between religion and other categories of belief is faith; but I do not consider the method by which an idea is accepted to be relevant here. Government should not endorse ideology, period. The separation of school and state is a cause I morally and financially support.

Our currency should not say "In God We Trust" — that's a violation of the separation of ideology and state. (And, yes, it offends some atheists, in exactly the same way that "In No God We Trust" would offend some theists. Government shouldn't offend, it should be neutral and should simply protect the rights of its citizens.) The Pledge of Allegiance shouldn't be recited at all; the government has no business promoting allegiance, especially to a mere symbol. The whole thing is offensive, not merely the 1954 addition of "under God".

There shouldn't be any state-recognized ideological holidays, and certainly no government decoration for them. Shrink the public sphere and grow the private sphere. Private businesses and private schools are welcome to have religious holidays and to celebrate them however they please. Government should stay away.

Whenever I look at church/state problems, I don't see a stress between church and state. I see a state that's overreached its legitimate purpose and gone into ideology. If the state would pull back, the problem would go away.

Tiny Island