We have a long tradition in America of the Separation of Church and State that prohibits government's promotion of religion, on the one hand, and interference with its free exercise, on the other. In their refusal to establish a state church or to favor one religion over another, the Founding Fathers did not think that religion was bad, but that there was something amiss in human nature, a certain tendency, a will to power, a lust for domination, that always bore watching.
It was a virus that lay dormant until its host came to power, whereupon that person or group of persons became suddenly rabid with a mania that sought to punish or persecute everyone not of their fold or persuasion. Paradoxically, the guise under which this malady manifested itself, as the history of Europe made only too plain, was that of religion.
The Founders thought that religion, something good in itself, could be used for good or bad ends, and, unless preventive measures were taken, it could induce in the susceptible a form of madness so malignant and destructive as to destroy the very essence of religion itself. By persecuting whoever refused to accept their religion or whose lives were deemed as insufficiently righteous, those now in power imposed a religious tyranny so suffocating in its totalitarian grip, scope, and detail that one immediately thinks of barbed wire and concentration camps.
"Nothing was ever made straight with the crooked timber of humanity," was Immanuel Kant's take on such would-be utopians in their spiritual Gulags. Even something as pure and noble as religious feeling, given the weak human vessels in which it was housed, could become tragically twisted, bringing into the world unspeakable horrors.
Other theories have tried to account for this bizarre aberration -- the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the Ascent of man from the beasts, innate human depravity, the Freudian id, defective genes, and bad social engineering. But more important than theories is the lesson to be drawn about institutions that promise Heaven on Earth -- it's always wise to audit their books, not the official ones, but the ones they keep hidden in the back-office safe.
In government, the need for transparency, accountability, Sunshine Laws, and investigative journalists -- assuming they haven't been murdered, imprisoned, or fired, is not a casual suggestion, but a sine qua non for maintaining even a pretense of institutional integrity. Politicians campaign in poetry, but govern in prose, so we had better distrust whatever they say by an iron-clad system of oversight, for as soon as they pass a law, their lawyers will find, or manufacture, a loophole, recalling Juvenal's acerbic remark, "Who shall guard the guards themselves?"
Even the jewel of religion could be dragged through the mire by persecuting believers of another faith until, weakened by torture, they end their suffering by conversion or death. So to prevent such abuses of power as had occurred in Old Europe, the Founders erected a "wall of separation" as a safeguard against such outrages when Catholics persecuted Protestants, Protestants persecuted Catholics, Protestants persecuted other Protestants, and both Protestants and Catholics persecuted the Jews. They wanted to put an end to such intolerance, bigotry, and sadism that wore the flattering unction of religion.
The Founders believed that what they were doing was ushering something new into the world, a novus ordo seclorum, "a new order of the ages," (see the back of a one-dollar bill). Our nation was to be a radical experiment in government, something which, like the Athenians, would show the world that free men had no need of kings and lords, but could rule themselves. No wonder the royal courts of Europe hoped it would fail lest the contagion spread to topple their thrones.
The Founders refused to involve government in religion or religious hostilities that for centuries had convulsed Europe's political landscape. Under stressful conditions, similar animosities might also threaten our newfound nation, already a powder keg of sectarian tensions. Lending the power of the state to favor any one denomination could exacerbate these suspicions still further by signaling the coming of a national church.
A wall of neutrality would keep government from pitting church against church that had fanned the flames of centuries-old hatreds. Every religion must be allowed to worship in its own way with no interference on the part of the state. Everyone must be protected from "religious enthusiasm," as that quaint old 18th-century phrase understatedly put it. The only service government could render religion was to stay out of its way.
This was an insight only painfully reached after generations of bloodshed, as monarchs imposed their religion on all their subjects to unify and transform their nations into theocracies to facilitate rule. The Old World was replete with examples of such murderous fury, as competing factions virtuously butchered each other in the conviction that they were doing God's will. Intending to bring their countries together, kings only managed to tear them apart.
The Founders were too well acquainted with this blood-drenched chronicle and were resolved to keep such hatreds far from our shores. History had taught them that bringing religion into the public arena was to let loose a monster.
Still raw in their memory were the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780 that only 11 years earlier had shocked all of Europe and left much of London in flames. It was a vivid reminder if any were needed of the inherent logic of "enthusiasm."
If Lord Gordon had prevailed against the British government, there was no telling whether the outcome would have turned back the clock two centuries when Protestants murdered Catholics only to be followed by Bloody Mary's horrendous retaliation upon her Protestant subjects.
It would have been the same sad old tale of religion's debasement by King Mob of score-settling, persecution, torture, and death. Religion was nitroglycerin that had to be contained for everyone's good.
So the "Separation Clause" was added to the Constitution as the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. It was imperative that government stay out of religion, neither encouraging it by state power, nor impeding its practice.
It makes admirable sense since all religions or non-religion are thereby protected; every faith is of equal value since government plays a neutral role. Plays a neutral role, that is, except when one religion, denomination, or faction breaks its part of the social compact by harassing and persecuting others who refuse to believe as the other faith dictates. Government then intervenes to protect the innocent.
The Separation Clause is still on the books and for a very good reason. It has never been revoked for the simple reason that human nature is always the same. There are still groups whose agenda is converting or persecuting those of other faiths, denominations, or of no faith at all to save them from themselves and the fiery furnace to come -- if only these lost souls would submit and see the Light.
Or, more exactly, see the Light by submitting to them, and validate these self-appointed deliverers in their presumed omniscience of knowing the innermost secrets of the mind of God, as if the Almighty were a card-carrying member of their particular church. What a sorry God the Lord would be who wasn't more open-minded than these, his closed-minded children, who insult him by their shabby image of him!
Whether such proselytizing zeal is disguised aggression, megalomania, or repressed self-doubt that is driven to convert out of inner uncertainty, these are, nevertheless, very dangerous people.
Yet, unbeknownst to themselves, they render the nation an inestimable service. They are a constant reminder of the very reason for our eternal vigilance in upholding the Separation of Church and State.