Which religions favor separation of church and state?

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionqanda/2014/06/which-religions-favor-separation-of-church-and-state/

LISA ASKS:

Do all religions teach separation between church and state? If not, which ones and why?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Separation of church and state (the usual phrasing though “of religion and state” is often more accurate) is an achievement of modern politics and by no means a universal one. Among world religions, after long struggle Christianity helped create the concept and broadly favors aspects of it in most countries. Islam stands at the opposite end of the spectrum, often considering it alien if not abhorrent. Interactions between religions and governments through history are too complex to summarize but The Guy will sketch some high points.

America’s latest church-and-state fuss (analyzed May 10 in “Religion Q and A”) involves Supreme Court allowance of prayers before local council meetings, even in a town where most of them were explicitly Christian. Americans United for Separation of Church and State is alarmed, asking in a headline whether this ruling is “putting the country on the path to church-state union.”

Well, no. There’s a vast gap between brief civic invocations and any “union,” and America to a remarkable degree has avoided situations common elsewhere, for instance:

Many European states, whether in Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant countries, subsidize churches or Christian education. Clergy are tax-supported civil servants in such religiously diverse lands as Egypt (Muslim), Germany (Protestant and Catholic), Greece (Orthodox) and Israel (Jewish). Britain’s prime minister chooses all bishops for pro forma appointment by the monarch who heads the Church of England, and 26 bishops sit in parliament’s upper house. India’s national government is officially non-sectarian but at the state level Hindus use anti-conversion laws to hobble competing faiths. Clergy are sometimes heads of state, including two who were revered as divinities not long ago, Tibetan Buddhism’s Dalai Lama and Japan’s Shinto emperor.

With Islam, the founding Prophet Muhammad was a political and military ruler and his faith has been closely intertwined with civil affairs ever since. Although the Quran says “there is no compulsion in religion” (2:256), some Muslim nations force religious law (Sharia) upon non-Muslims and in extreme cases threaten converts to other faiths with the death penalty. Iran is a dramatic example of “church-state union” that is oppressively theocratic.

In Jewish tradition, God deemed rule by autocrats to be problematic (see 1 Samuel: 8) but biblical kings arose and combined religious with civil functions. Jews had no nation-state of their own through much of their history. Modern Israel’s successful democracy practices religious freedom with certain privileges for Orthodox Judaism.
Christianity starts from Jesus’s clever and cryptic saying “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (included in three of the four Gospels). Scholars say that rather that spelling out which “things” are which, Jesus left it to individuals to apply the principle. But he did imply a certain distinction, if not “separation,” between the two realms. That concept was later developed in St. Augustine’s masterwork “The City of God” and Martin Luther’s idea of the “two kingdoms.”

Though born as an oppressed minority under Roman rule, Christianity eventually became heavily involved with government, often to its detriment. Matters changed fundamentally during the 17th Century. The Thirty Years War between Catholic and Protestant regimes (1618-1648) devastated Europe and roused cynicism toward the church. The English Civil War (1642-1651) had similar effects. While the Enlightenment fostered individualism and religious skepticism, demands for free conscience emanated from Protestant dissenters in Britain and its American colonies.

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Should the high court have backed town council prayers?

BRAD ASKS:

[Regarding the U.S. Supreme Court's new Greece v. Galloway ruling that allows prayers before town council meetings]: Is the door being nudged open for an ugly discourse on separation of church and state?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Brad fears this pro-prayer decision might stir up ugliness, but The Guy thinks there’s be more of it if the Court had instead barred invocations like those in Greece, New York. Americans generally like prayers to solemnize civic occasions from inauguration of the president on down, and politicians naturally go along. Briefs in Greece’s favor were signed by 85 members of the U.S. House and 34 U.S. Senators. Most were Republicans, but the Obama Administration likewise filed in support. Though civic prayers are popular or considered useful to the republic, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily good for the Christian faith. Hold that thought.

Politicians aside, many news reports missed that all 9 Supreme Court justices were favorable toward council prayers. The four liberal dissenters, sounding much like the five majority conservatives, stated that local council meetings need not “be religion- or prayer-free” and that’s because “legislative prayer has a distinctive constitutional warrant by virtue of tradition.” Mainly, the liberals protested because Greece loaded up its lineup of prayer-givers with earnest Christians and made little effort to include religious minorities.

The Constitution’s Bill of Rights begins “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Though that commands only Congress, the “incorporation” doctrine (which Justice Thomas rejects) extends this to actions by state and local governments.

Traditionalists say the “establishment clause” only forbids a European-style official church. Separationists embrace the Court’s 1947 interpretation that government cannot show favoritism toward either a particular religion or toward religion in general.

In the 67 years since, the Court has nudged the door open and shut, in what Justice Alito called “our often puzzling” series of church-state rulings. In that time the nation’s religious diversity has increased, especially since the 1965 change in immigration law, and foes of religious faith have become more militant. The key rulings on civic prayers:

*Engel v. Vitale (1962): Outlawed public school students’ recitation of the New York State Regents’ brief, non-denominational prayer to “Almighty God” (decided by 8-1).

*Abington v. Schempp (1963): Ordered Pennsylvania (also Maryland in a companion case) to end public students’ recitation of the Lord’s Prayer along with Bible readings (by 8-1).

*Marsh v. Chambers (1983): Ruled that prayers before sessions of Nebraska’s legislature do not violate the “establishment” ban unless they’re designed to “proselytize,” or “advance” or “disparage” a religion (by 6-3).

*Wallace v. Jaffree (1985): Abolished Alabama schools’ minute of silence for student “meditation or prayer” (by 6-3).

*Lee v. Weisman (1991): Decided a Rhode Island rabbi’s junior high graduation prayer was unconstitutional (by 5-4).

*Santa Fe v. Doe (2000): Opposed public-address prayers before Texas football games from clergy chosen by students (by 6-3).

That brings us to the 5-to-4 decision in Greece v. Galloway, which applies the 1983 Marsh case reasoning about state legislatures to town councils.

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Pod people: Reindeers and the quest for nonsectarian prayer

So why, you ask, is that generic civic Christmas scene on top of this GetReligion post as the temperatures in the Greater Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area finally begin to show signs of real summer baseball weather? I am assuming that, at this point, we have seen our last snow flurries in these parts.

I’ll come back to the reindeer in a minute. Trust me, there is a logical connection between that image and the subject material in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, which as usual is a joint production of the GetReligionistas and host Todd Wilken of Issues, Etc. Click here to listen in.

For now, click pause on your reflections on years of the “reindeer wars,” which is actually one of the busiest fronts in America’s lively “Christmas Wars.” I want you to picture another church-state battlefield.

Let’s pretend that it is 10 minutes before a meeting of a government body in some typical American setting, perhaps even a place with a name like Town of Greece or what have you.

On this night there is an issue before this government body — perhaps a zoning question affecting a booming evangelical megachurch — that is special relevance to religious institutions of all kinds, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Wiccan, etc., etc. So there are going to be lots of different kinds of religious believers present. Atheists and agnostics are also highly involved in this dispute, stressing that religious groups should not receive special rights.

Now, under the recent 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision, this Town of Greece meeting will open with prayer.

Try, try, try to imagine a prayer on this occasion that would please all of the participants. Depending on who is up to bat in the community’s much disputed multi-faith prayer rotation, there are a number of possibilities and let’s keep score. Ready?

Yes, you could have an evangelical pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Who is happy? (Of course, these believers could gather outside on the sidewalk or steps and pray to their hearts content, even out loud, but who wants to settle for that. Right?)

You could have a liberal or traditional Jewish rabbi pray (substitute liberal or Jewish Islamic cleric if you which). Who is happy, including those present from among the traditional and/or liberal bodies in the faith who lost the coin flip?

You could have an agnostic, or a liberal mainline Protestant, or a Unitarian offer a completely nonsectarian prayer that would sound something like this:

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Read this story and weep! But ask a few more questions

Every now and then, I receive private emails, or emails sent through our contact link, that sound something like this: So why aren’t you guys writing about this story? You afraid to or are you just too prejudiced or only interested in stories that allegedly attack conservative Christians.

Then the email will include a link to a news story — almost all of them perfectly valid — that talks about an event or a subject in which a minority religious group (in the American context, in most cases) is being attacked or treated badly.

In other words a story rather like the following Associated Press report, which ran at the ABC News site under this headline: “ACLU Accuses La. School of Religious Harassment.” More on that in a minute.

Now the problem is that many of these stories are actually rather ordinary. They get the job done and there isn’t really much to comment on — negative or positive — in terms of the nuts-and-bolts of journalism. Here’s the bottom line: Most of the time, what these correspondents want to do is argue about THE ISSUE at the heart of the story, not a journalism issue in the new coverage.

Consider the AP story mentioned earlier. The events described in this story are so crazy — the church-state violations attributed to these educators so ridiculous — that it almost reads like something from The Onion.

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing a school board in Louisiana, alleging officials at one of its schools harassed a sixth-grader because of his Buddhist faith and that the district routinely pushes Christian beliefs.

The lawsuit was filed against the Sabine Parish School Board … in U.S. District Court in Shreveport on behalf of Scott and Sharon Lane and their three children. According to the complaint from the ACLU and its Louisiana chapter, the Lanes enrolled their son — a lifelong Buddhist of Thai descent — in Negreet High School and he quickly became the target of harassment by the school’s staff.

So what is alleged to have happened in this case, at the hands of Superintendent Sara Ebarb, Negreet High Principal Gene Wright and science teacher Rita Roark? If half of this is true the ACLU lawsuit is a slam dunk:

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Really? Editors who don’t know about the ‘reindeer rules’?

Sorry about this, folks, but we need to take a quick glance back at a lingering “Christmas wars” story from 2013.

You would think, by this time, that everyone within a light year or two of a newsroom and/or public courthouse would have heard of the whole “reindeer rules” battles linked to public officials allowing the erection of Christmas creches (or Menorahs) on public property. If you want a quick refresher on some related issues, check out this recent post from our resident Godbeat patriarch Richard Ostling.

As always, let me state right up front that — on the creche issue itself — I have no idea why so many religious people want to put plastic versions of the symbols of their faith on the lawns of the secular sanctuaries where you have to go to fight about traffic tickets, to have a secular marriage rite, etc., etc. If creches are all that important, why not have every single church in town put one up, along with waves of public symbolism on patches of private property, and save all of the lawyer fees for charitable use?

But back to the public-square issue and the resulting journalism issues. As I wrote about a decade ago:

We live in an age in which government officials — local, state and national — are wrestling with holiday trees, menorahs, creches, angels, ears of corn, Santa statues, plastic snowmen and a host of other secular and sacred objects that church-state partisans keep dragging into the public square. …

There are few guidelines carved in stone. The court did establish what many activists call the “reindeer rules” that allow displays of religious symbols on public property as long as they are surrounded by other symbols, which are usually borrowed from pop culture.

You remember that public Christmas display a few years ago that included, among other mocking options, the mannequin arrangement featuring “the chosen one,” Luke Skywalker of “Star Wars”? What a lovely victory for faith.

Anyway, it does not appear that the reality of the church-state era symbolized by the “reindeer rules” has made it to The Baxter Bulletin, based on the following example of its follow-up coverage of a recent Christmas wars clash in Mountain Home, Ark.

This is all pretty normal stuff, with predictable warriors, only there are some glaring journalism holes to fill:

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Latest coverage from the church of The New York Times

Few news consumers would be surprised that the journalists at Baptist Press frame their coverage of controversial moral and cultural issues in a way that supports the doctrines affirmed by the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest non-Catholic flock of believers.

After all, this is a denominational wire service that is funded by a doctrinally conservative body. The wider world of Southern Baptists (and often former Southern Baptist) is complex enough that it also supports a second wire service — the Associated Baptist Press — that affirms what is usually a more doctrinally liberal, oldline Protestant view on social issues.

Thus, it isn’t surprising that, when framing the decision by Judge Clark Waddoups to strike down a key section of Utah’s anti-polygamy law, the Baptist Press team used several quotes from moral conservatives. In turn, it is not surprising that these sources linked this event to the “slippery slope” argument that says once a culture starts redefining a concept like marriage, it is hard to stop. Here’s a typical passage:

Defenders of the biblical and historic view of marriage said the decision undermines the institution and provides more evidence that its redefinition will be more expansive than just incorporating same-sex relationships.

“Sadly, when marriage is elastic enough to mean anything, in due time it comes to mean nothing,” Russell D. Moore said in a statement released Dec. 14. Moore is president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).

“This is what happens when marriage becomes about the emotional and sexual wants of adults, divorced from the needs of children for a mother and a father committed to each other for life,” Moore said. “Polygamy was outlawed in this country because it was demonstrated, again and again, to hurt women and children.”

Later in the report, the Baptist Press report included related several quotes from the Waddoups text and from defendant Kody Brown, who is featured with his four wives in a television reality show called “Sister Wives.” That’s pretty much to be expected, since the BP staff includes quite several scribes with mainstream news experience.

However, here was the voice that I found especially interesting in this context:

Jonathan Turley, lead counsel for the Browns and a law professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., connected the homosexual and polygamy causes in his reaction to Waddoups’ opinion.

“[P]lural families present the same privacy and due process concerns faced by [the] gay and lesbian community over criminalization,” Turley wrote.

“The decision affects a far greater range of such relationships than the form of polygamy practiced by the Browns,” he said. “It is a victory not for polygamy but privacy in America.”

Bravo. It gladdens the heart of your GetReligionistas to see hints of intellectual and cultural diversity, even in copy from a denominational wire service.

Why bring this up? Other than in our “Got news?” posts, GetReligion rarely digs into the offerings of advocacy journalism sites.

Well, in this case it is interesting to contrast the Baptist Press piece with the coverage of the same decision that was offered in The New York Times.

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Concerning plastic reindeer and ‘Merry Christmas’ rules


MARY ASKS:

What happened to saying “Merry Christmas”? Is the move to saying “Happy Holidays” instead a good thing?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

On the hit CBS-TV drama “The Good Wife” we’re in the offices of Illinois’ governor-elect as his top aide scans a hallway and angrily barks a Yuletide order: “Holiday decorations! Not Jesus! Holiday!” Bruce Tinsley’s satirical comic strip “Mallard Fillmore” carries this TV announcement: “The following Christmas special actually mentions Christianity. Viewer discretion is advised.” Another “Mallard” strip has a mother reporting that her son’s school phoned with a complaint: “He just isn’t getting into the Winter Solstice pageant spirit.”

Speaking of which, the Episcopal Church’s New York City cathedral will honor non-Christian Americans and pre-Christian Europeans with its annual “Winter Solstice Celebration” (reserved seats $90), broadcast by National Public Radio. Potential attendees are assured that this “holiday alternative” is “secular” and “a contemporary take on ancient solstice rituals, when people felt a calling to come together on the longest night of the year to welcome the return of the sun.” Days later, the cathedral will also welcome the Son.

‘Tis the season of the “war on Christmas” and the war on the “war,” and the war on the war on the “war.”

Regarding Mary’s specific query, sensible person-to-person etiquette seems to advise saying “Merry Christmas” to religious Christians, “Happy Hanukkah” to religious Jews (though the two holidays didn’t coincide this year), and “Happy Holidays” to adherents of other faiths, and touchy secularists, and people whose religious sensitivities are unknown. That’s the easy part. But clever TV scripts and cartoons indicate the issue is far broader in an increasingly secularized and multicultural America.

Church leaders, whether conservative or liberal, generally express less angst about American society downplaying Christmas than cultural conservatives like Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly. For years he has complained that stores and schools and government agencies appease “secular progressives” by shunning “Merry Christmas” and everything else related to the C-word. Enlisting in the cause is former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin in her new book Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas. She asserts that the “war” is “the tip of the spear in the larger battle to secularize our culture.”

Liberal and secular folks on the opposite side think “Happy Holidays” best suits American pluralism and pooh-pooh the war as trivial or, as expressed by New York Times pundit Gail Collins, an “imaginary” problem that’s exploited to foment “seasonal victimhood.” Tell that to public school music teachers in Rock Hill, South Carolina; Wausau, Wisconsin, and Bordentown, New Jersey; Anno Domini 2013. School administrators in all three towns scrapped traditional Christmas carols at December concerts but protests then forced them to back down.

The conservative Alliance Defending Freedom, an active force in these disputes, sent 13,000 letters informing public schools that “every federal court that has examined the issue has determined that including Christmas carols and other religious music in school choir programs fully complies with” the Constitution’s ban on government “establishment of religion.” A notable 2007 accord on religion in public schools, endorsed by a wide range of educational and religious organizations, approves recognition of religious holidays that fulfills a secular educational purpose, so long as religious celebrations are avoided. (Click here for the .pdf)

What about those public Christmas tree displays?

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This is praise: USA Today church-state story was confusing

Welcome back to the First Amendment wars, an increasingly active front in our nation’s Culture Wars. Yesterday was a big church-state day at the U.S. Supreme Court, with the justices hearing testimony on the Town of Greece v. Galloway — yet another case centering on prayer in public life.

If coverage of this event was not prominently displayed in your local newspaper today, there could be a logical reason for that. Mainstream journalists tend to be pro-First Amendment, but for cultural reasons they may feel conflicted when writing and editing stories about the free speech rights of conservative religious believers.

The bottom line: It’s hard, even for a true liberal, to tolerate the free speech of people that you consider intolerant.

You can see the conflicts pretty clearly in the USA Today report on the testimony and that report followed a pretty solid A1 news feature by the same crew on this topic that ran ahead of the showdown in court.

This is confusing stuff and accurate stories will reflect that reality.

The top of the advance feature was an absolute classic, in the category of ironic anecdotal ledes. Classic.

GREECE, N.Y. – The Rev. Lou Sirianni opened the most recent monthly meeting of the Greece Town Board with a prayer that reached back 239 years.

“Be thou present, O God of wisdom, and direct the councils of this honorable assembly,” he began, quoting from the Rev. Jacob Duche’s invocation before the first Continental Congress in 1774. The prayer ended, “All this we ask in the name and through the merits of Jesus Christ, Thy Son and our Savior.”

Not everyone in Greece — not even everyone at the sparsely attended town board sessions — prays to Jesus or believes in his saving powers. Some don’t pray at all. Many more don’t see a place for it at government meetings.

Thus, the court case. The USA Today team did a fine job, in a small amount of space, of summarizing the previous prayer-wars battles, showing why this topic tends to tie justices in knots. This following passage contains the key word, for those assigned the journalistic task of following the arguments this week in the high court. Can you spot it?

Most state legislatures open their sessions with a prayer, nearly half of them with guidelines. Many county legislatures open meetings with a prayer, according to an informal survey by the National Association of Counties. National data on prayer practices at the city, town and village levels do not exist.

The Supreme Court cracked down on prayer in schools in the 1960s, ruling against Bible readings, the Lord’s Prayer or an official state prayer.

In Lemon v. Kurtzman, a 1971 case involving religion in legislation, the high court devised what became known as the “Lemon test.” Government action, it said, should have a secular purpose, cannot advance or inhibit religion and must avoid too much government entanglement with religion.

Later, the story notes, the court “gave a green light” to legislative prayers that do not advance or attack any particular faith.

That raised a question that loomed over the Town of Greece debates.

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