In an earlier article on the nature of the foundation of the religious tradition of Christianity in America, I commented that our nation’s Founding Father never intended that religion should play any part whatsoever in American jurisprudence.
It is clear that in reading the U.S. Constitution that the framers of that document were so frightened by the idea that religious would take root in the governance of America that when it became time to amend it, the first issue that they chose to address was one of religion. The concept of the “separation of church and state,” not to mention the words to describe it, was created by Thomas Jefferson to build a wall to protect religion from state interference, certainly, but also to ensure that the federal government would be able to function without recourse to religious oversight.
For our Founding Fathers, drafting the Constitution was an act of creating a rule of law in the U.S. that would stand the test of time precisely because it would not rely on the changing mores and societal norms of a constantly evolving moral code. Certainly this rule of law was based on English common law, but it also incorporated the idea of the rule of precedence in the role of the court to interpret the promulgated laws of the legislative branch of our government and to allow it to change in a manner that was free from political or partisan gamesmanship.
We have heard from our earliest days in grade school civics classes that the Constitution is a “living document,” enabling it to survive the test of time in American jurisprudence because it evolves in the interpretation of judicial oversight based on the changing face of democracy and our understanding of ourselves. The Founding Fathers ensured that this role would fall to the priesthood of jurisprudence, our federal judges and magistrates, not to the priesthood of Christianity.
The issue that I have with the right-wing facet of our political system lies in the notion that religious arguments should hold any sway in the legislation our country’s laws. Personal convictions are wonderful, but they deserve to stay in the personal arena of one’s life. Thomas Jefferson was not the first to mandate that the church and state should remain separate entities; as Jesus said in Matthew 22:21, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”
Take the issue of abortion, as an example: for those that support a pro-life philosophy that is supported by deeply-held religious notion, an argument against abortion would run, “All life is sacred because it is a gift from God, therefore it should be nurtured at all stages of development.” The issue with this argument is that it does not call on any legal defense of the belief; if all one needed was a feeling to define a law than I would have mandated a long time ago that Republicans should be relocated to Guantanamo Bay’s Camp X-Ray.
Regardless of personal beliefs on the nature of life or of God, abortion is a legally defined right enumerated by a law of precedence by the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade. One’s personal beliefs and convictions cease to matter when confronted by the idea that the law is the only god worshiped at the altars of our democracy.
The Constitution does not forbid anyone from having beliefs, what it does expressly forbid is assuming that your beliefs are more important that mine or that your beliefs should have the authority of law.
The right tends to forget that moral arguments are not valid arguments when confronted with a law that they object to on moral grounds. Simply assuming that your God would prefer that you not have an abortion or attend a gay marriage is no reason to assume that others should not have a right of personal choice in matters that are not so much moral but rather legal.
The rule of law, or the concept that no one is immune to the law, gives rise to the notion that we are all of us equal and that we all of us are to be treated with the same deference and respect inherent to our place as citizens of America. This glorious notion is far more meaningful than the foggy understanding you may have of what your God may or may not want. Yet dealing with murky suppositions about the desires of God is precisely what the right-wing would like us to engage in when they call for a re-examination of the established right of abortion or in ending gay marriages in the six jurisdictions in which it is legal, or in ceasing to provide for the weakest in our society by eliminating welfare programs.
Clearly the next two elections, 2010’s midterm and 2012’s presidential, will be a referendum by us as citizen-kings to uphold the rule of law or to yield ground in the fight for civil liberties and basic human rights to the religious right. It is my fervent hope that those of us who refuse to yield, who refuse to give up the hard-fought ground that we have claimed will not lose this opportunity to keep religion in its place in out society: in the churches and out of the statehouses.
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