Church & State

On 24 January the Pennsylvania House of Representatives unanimously approved a “noncontroversial resolution” declaring 2012 as the “Year of the Bible” in Pennsylvania. In its brief twenty-eight lines H.R. 535 manages to pass off vague statement as historical fact, use undefined fear as a rallying cry, tug at the heartstrings of a pathetic patriotism, and provide overly simplistic solutions to self-suggested and non-existent problems. All in all, it is a masterpiece of modern government.

And it would be completely laughable if it were not also offensive to every Christian, every non-Christian, and every non-theist alike. In passing this resolution 193-0 nearly every member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives has shown a complete lack of understanding of the absolute necessity for private matters of religion to be always and forever separate from any civil authority for religion’s and liberty’s sake.

This is not to say one’s religious sentiments may not inform a Representative’s character or influence their conscience. Those sentiments most certainly will. What the Representatives may not do is use the power of civil government to promote religion or a specific religion, but that is precisely what the House has done.

Much has been written about Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists, that famous letter which introduced the phrase “a wall of separation between Church & State” into our political discussion. But what of the Danbury Baptists? What of their initial letter? Why would a Christian denomination in a supposedly Christian nation write to the President for understanding and reassurance in the first place?

The authority of State and Federal power were delineated differently when the Danbury Baptists wrote their original letter in 1801. While the First Amendment of the United States Constitution prevented the Federal government from establishing a national religion, the Danbury Baptists were concerned that their own State of Connecticut was under no such constraint. They feared that the establishment of a State church in Connecticut would compromise their own liberty and personal safety. This was a very real fear considering that in their recent history their own State and neighboring Rhode Island were each founded to escape religious persecution in Christian Massachusetts.

The danger they saw, rightly so, was not in religion, but in the combination of religion and government and the power that combination holds. They feared those “who seek after power & gain under the pretense of government & Religion should reproach their fellow men — should reproach their chief Magistrate, as an enemy of religion Law & good order”. Those seeking power would use the cloak of religion, and the moral respect people naturally give it, to decry those with whom they disagree for their own political advantage. In this election year, the evening news is only too full of examples.

It is for the protection of religion, especially for any sect in minority, and for the protection of conscience that in these matters government must have no say and no authority, legal or moral. It is for your own religion’s sake that a separation must be jealously guarded from temporal governmental power.

In matters of private conscience, the Danbury Baptists saw these limits very clearly, that a government must have no voice, “… That Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals … That the legitimate Power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor …”

The resolution of the Pennsylvania House flies in the face of this principle, explicitly acknowledging “the formative influence of the Bible on our Commonwealth and nation and our national need to study and apply the teachings of the holy scriptures.”

“But what is wrong with this?” you may ask. “It doesn’t prevent others from worshiping as they choose.” The problem is not only protection from majority power. The problem is also that for those who do not believe as such, our convictions “we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights: and these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgements, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen.”

Ultimately this resolution of the PA House of Representatives is ridiculous. No government authority can dictate the private conscience of any person. At best this is shallow politics, intended to consolidate power and position by conjuring some vague feeling of goodwill on the part of the people toward their elected Representatives with some mealy-mouthed, insincere appeal to their deepest, most private convictions. How insulting! At worst it shows the Representatives’ blatant disregard and contempt for the varied sources of morality of each individual, whether that person relies on spiritual revelation or daily experience.

Government has not the authority nor the power to determine the mind of the individual. Its only proper use is the protection of the person and property of each, limited in power such that the government itself is not a violator of those rights. That the Pennsylvania House of Representatives took it upon itself to issue H.R. 535 and declare 2012 as the “Year of the Bible” is a gross insult to the private convictions of every Pennsylvanian and every American.

The Christian scriptures instruct us to, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When our government learns that in matters of conscience they have no authority, that they have no right, that in these matters the Government must render unto man, we shall marvel at them.

Photograph by Wyoming_Jackrabbit. Used under a CreativeCommons license

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7 thoughts on “Render Unto Man

  1. initially, i was appalled at the resolution. but i then remembered that concentration of power has been the was of this country for some time. faster and faster it goes.

    the “Bible only” wording alienates the 4 million residents who don’t even have a religious denomination. of the 8 million that are religious, they practice 115 different faiths (yes, many of those are Christian). [source:

    politically decreeing that “Renewing our knowledge of and faith in God through holy scripture can strengthen us as a nation and a people” and that we “need to study and apply the teachings of the holy scriptures” ignores the rights of the millions of Pennsylvanians who don’t agree. i’m a big fan of the morality that spiritual teachings convey. but please, keep your religion off of my legislative body.

  2. What is the year of the Koran then? Or the Kabbala…or (fill in the blank). Picking one over the other should never be a government concern. Many of us consider the Bible to be a massive land grabbing, book of violence and fear mongering as much as any morality it contains…but certainly has nothing to do with the government of PA. They get paid for such nonsense on behalf of the citizens? Gooberism comes to mind. 2012 as always is the year of Zen.

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