Separation protects us all

Chris received $200 from FFRF for his prize-winning essay.

“Separation of church and state” in the U.S. refers to a phrase attributed to Thomas Jefferson and quoted by the Supreme Court in interpreting the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In largely Christian America, separating religion from government meets with resistance from some Christians.

The primary source of resistance stems from failing to understand why separation is necessary in a pluralistic society and how it protects everyone. There are many reasons why modern promotion of the Establishment Clause has been perceived as an attack specifically against Christians. One is that most modern legal disputes pertaining to the Establishment Clause are meant to abolish practices established by Christians. State-sponsored prayer in schools, the National Day of Prayer, teaching intelligent design or creationism, inserting “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance, changing the national motto to “In God We Trust” and adding it to our currency, placing Ten Commandments monuments on public property. Each was proposed and promoted by Christian citizens.

So the issue is framed: the religious versus the godless, the Christians versus the nonbelievers. It’s seen as one side having their personal, secular convictions present in government and the other side having their own personal, religious convictions suppressed. For all the controversy, the U.S. government is largely secular. Christians ask why can’t the government represent both sides?

The answer: There are more than two sides in a pluralistic society where religious identities abound. When Christians see daily prayer over the school intercom abolished, they may perceive it as an attack on Christianity. But in reality, it’s protection for non-Christian students. Christian students actually enjoy the same protection because they will never have to endure a Muslim prayer over the intercom or sit through a reading of the Quran at their graduation ceremony. They will never have to listen to a Scientologist teacher explain how modern psychology is invalid because mental health is a matter of reaching a higher thetan level. They will never have to listen to a Jain teacher explain how evolution is false because all creatures have perpetually reincarnated souls that have always existed. Time will never be spent on these activities. Time will only be spent on the common values held by all students — the secular values.

The word “secular” has been used pejoratively by believers to denote an anti-religious sentiment. In reality, the dictionary definition of the word is “denoting attitudes, activities or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis.”

When a public official makes an appeal to “the common bonds of our humanity” and “the pursuit of knowledge and good will,” he or she is expressing a sentiment that can be appreciated universally by all people, regardless of religious beliefs or lack thereof. But when a Christian public official appeals to “our unity as children of God,” the sentiment cannot be appreciated universally, because Buddhists, Jains and secular humanists do not believe in God.

The government we build together should represent all of us without giving preference to any single group. We are united in our belief in education, freedom of speech, equality, democracy, liberty, justice, a healthy economy and the pursuit of happiness.

We can pursue those values together publicly without favoring or alienating anyone’s private beliefs.

Chris Redford, 29, Lawrence, Kansas, has a B.S. in computer science and is continuing as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Kansas. He has a passion for substantive dialogue and negotiation. The focus of his dissertation is the use of computational argumentation as a tool for conflict resolution.

Freedom From Religion Foundation