Which Church Wins?

Sandra Day O’Connor was the critical swing vote on a number of important church-state questions before the court (is there anything she wasn’t a critical swing vote on?). Now, if she is replaced by an even more conservative justice (remember, O’Connor is no one’s liberal; she made George W. Bush president with one of those critical swing votes), there is an excellent chance that the wall between church and state will come crumbling down.

And if it does, we need to ask ourselves one important question – which Church should we meld with the state?

One of the reasons our Founding Fathers chose to make the United States of America the first nation in the Western Hemisphere to have no official state religion is because they couldn’t agree on which religion. Would it be the Quakers of Pennsylvania or the Puritans of Massachusetts or one of the many other vibrant religions throughout the other colonies?

Obviously, the Founders weren’t going to pick one particular denomination out of the lot and declare it the ideology and religion of us all. That is antithetical to the core of America. This seems almost too obvious to state.

So, then why are we still having the same discussion over two hundred years later? House Majority Leader Tom DeLay says, “I don't believe there is a separation of church and state.” He calls it a “myth.” This is not some sort of insignificant fringe character. He is the person Republicans have chosen as their Majority Leader.

And he is not alone. The whole Christian Right movement believes there ought to be no separation between church and state. Nearly every major leader of the movement has said so on the record. But here are my two favorites:

“The idea that religion and politics don't mix was invented by the Devil to keep Christians from running their own country.”

-- Jerry Falwell, Sermon, July 4, 1976 presumably referring to the satanic James Madison who wrote the US Constitution.

“There is no such thing as separation of church and state in the Constitution. It is a lie of the Left and we are not going to take it anymore.”

-- Pat Robertson, address to his American Center for Law and Justice, November, 1993.

Obviously, the Republican leadership agrees. That is one of the reasons why they have selected Tom DeLay as their Majority Leader and that is why they are getting ready to nominate someone with this view to the Supreme Court at this very moment.

I would love for them to prove me wrong and publicly declare that they do not believe we should tear down the wall between church and state and that they will not appoint anyone to the Supreme Court who thinks we should. They won’t say this because tearing down the wall between church and state is exactly what they want, what they desperately want.

The rest of us walk around in a stupor because we -- as good Americans who actually took a Civics class in high school -- think that no right thinking American could believe that. Ask them. They’ll tell you. The Christian Right is not shy about their opinions.

While we’re in the middle of asking Tom DeLay, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Tony Perkins and George W. Bush questions, I have another one I think is fair – if we allow religion to play a role in government, which religion gets to play that role?

Before they all joyfully jump up at once and shout Christianity in unison, let me add this wrinkle – which denomination? And if you want to get really complicated, as you will have to, which interpretation?

A lot of the Christian Right constituency is happy to let the likes of Senator Rick Santorum and Senator George Allen carry on about how much they want religion to play a role in government. But have they considered, whose interpretation of the Bible are we going to go with?

Jimmy Carter is an evangelical, maybe we should go with his interpretation of the Bible? It seems like there might be a considerable gap between how President Carter and Representative DeLay interpret the scripture. Or how about the gap between Reverend Pat Robertson and Reverend Al Sharpton?

Whose Bible, whose denomination, whose interpretation are we going to go with?

See if you can come to an exact agreement with your neighbor on what the Bible says about everything you do, let alone everything the government does. See if you can find two priests who can agree completely on what they think the Bible says on every issue.

If we could all come to an agreement on what all of our religions say about a particular topic, then we wouldn’t have all these religions, and all of their denominations and all of the people inside those denominations who still find a way to disagree with each other.

It almost seems like the Founding Fathers were on to something when they chose not to establish a state religion – when they chose to build that famous wall between church and state that some of us now desperately want to rip down.