Finding a Proper Role for Religion

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.

From the beginning of the United States, it’s clear that the Founding Fathers did not intend to establish a state-supported religion, be it Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Paganism, or any of the other hundreds of religions in the world. However, there seems to be a push in certain parts of today’s political environment for America to return to its status as a “Christian Nation” and to heed “God’s Law” in our policies. Nothing could be further from the wishes of the Founders.

Firstly, let us look at the Founders themselves. Whether you consider Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin or one of the other gifted minds that gave birth to the United States, you find a history of disregard for religion and, in Jefferson’s case, a number of statements supporting outright atheism. But how could we know for sure that the Founders intended the United States to be a secular country?

Fortunately, the Treaty of Tripoli has some answers for us. Signed during John Adams’ presidency, the Treaty of Tripoli was a piece in the historical saga of the Barbary pirates that unfolded after America won its independence and lost the protection of British warships  in the Mediterranean. Important to our discussion is Article 11 of that treaty that states:

Art. 11. As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen,—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

Let us analyze this document. It is clearly stating that America was not founded on the Christian religion and this line of reasoning makes perfect sense when taken in the broader context of the opinions of the Founders and the intent of the Constitution. Furthermore, this treaty was read aloud and ratified unanimously by the United States Senate. So here, we have a statement pushed by the President and ratified unanimously by the Senate declaring that the United States is a secular nation.

It is clear that the Founders did not intend for any religion to be a governing force in government. So where does that leave religion? It leaves it to what it is intended: the care of the sick, the poor and the spiritual enlightenment to those who choose to believe. This should be seen as the proper role of religion in society. Not to govern, not to rule, not to influence public policy or mandate individual action but to care for the lesser among us and bring both material and spiritual relief. Who among us could envision Jesus or Muhammad returning to Earth and declaring that he will run for the Presidential nomination in 2020? I think Jesus would be far more comfortable living in halfway houses curing drug addicts and ministering to troubled youths than he would be sitting behind the Resolute Desk.

This is my view, though greatly simplified and lacking a lot of detail which, due to time constraints, I cannot include at present. Religion should remain focused on the care of the weak and the poor, not the designs of foreign policy. The Founders were among the most brilliant men to have ever lived and they understood the necessity of separating Church and State. Mingling religion with the state has always proved disastrous in the past, from the Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition to Islamic extremists and Holocaust deniers. They understood the best solution was to leave each to its respective strengths. Let the governments govern and let the religions minister. And leave the people free to decide for themselves whether they need the ministry.

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