Thursday, November 04, 2004

Wall of Separation

I can't imagine there's ever been more commentary on an election, especially since this is the first presidential election with a fully-formed blogosphere. Some of it has been pretty angry; some has been still pretty angry; some pretty funny and insightful; and some has been smug. Even the people in my office have done little beyond talk about the election and peripheral concerns, like which country they're going to move to.

I've gone pretty quickly through my anger, denial, bargaining, depression states and i'm now into acceptance. Not easy acceptance, but i've calmed down enough to feel like maybe the country will survive to see a better day, some day, maybe after a prolonged dark ages. OK, so maybe i'm not completely past depression yet.

Anyway, now that i've reached a point where i can start to think again, i've begun to ponder those "moral issues" that came up in the exit polls. (Incidentally, the quotes around "moral issues" are a dead giveaway that you're a liberal commie-pinko). On both counts-- stem-cell research and same-sex marriage-- it seems to me that the so-called moral objections come primarily from Bible passages that appear to define conception as the beginning of life or that condemn homosexuality. As a graduate of a Bible-centric Lutheran elementary school, i can confirm that the passages condemning homosexuality are fairly explicit (in the right context); but in my opinion those that are used for the conception argument are less so.

In any case, i believe the moral objections come from Biblical references (if you disagree, there's not much point in going further, because, well nobody reads this stuff anyway). Fine, so far. If you believe that the Bible is the unadulterated word of God, and the Bible says no canoodling with the same sex, then by all means don't do it. At first glance though, this doesn't seem to me like a legitimate basis for a law given that this is the belief of one faction of one religion. On the other hand, some of our laws clearly are based on moral beliefs, albeit almost universally held beliefs like the idea that thou shall not wacketh thy neighbor unless thy neighbor preparest to wacketh thou. I figure somebody must have written something about where moral beliefs figure in the separation of church and state.

First, let's state what i believe to be the formal statement of church-state separation in the US Constitution, the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances

The relevant bit here is the establishment clause, which i think is interpreted to mean that the government (state and federal in light of the 14th amendment) can't establish a preferred or mandatory religion. This has generally been extended to mean that the government can't raise money in the name of one religion or use the symbols or rituals of a particular religion. But i don't know if this necessarily means that a particular religious belief can't be cast into law if enough people feel that it should be.

I looked first to James Madison, hoping that he'd have something to say. The best thing i found was here, Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance, which was written in response to a proposed law to levy taxes to support the clergy in Virginia. There's much great stuff here, but nothing that explicitly weighs in on my particular concern. I did really like this bit though:

What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society?

In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny: in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries.

I suspect that Madison would have had some good opinions on this matter, but i won't put words in his mouth.

Next i did a search on "moral laws", which was probably a mistake. I got a lot of stuff that disagrees with me, such as this well-written but largley pointless article by Alan Keyes about moral laws. He argues that making morally-based laws unconstitutional would essentially infringe on the free exercise of religion. Um, yeah. Apparently he was out sick on James Madison day during his constitutional law class. Also got a lot of stuff on Kant and the Metaphysics of Morals. This reminded me of a drinking game in college that my roommate and i used to play, where we'd get wasted and then try to read random passages from Kant. It makes more sense when you're drunk.

Sigh. I'm too lazy to do actual research, so i'm going to fall back on people who're smarter than me. Jefferson described the establishment and free exercise clauses in the constitution as a "wall of separation" between church and state. I think this is a great metaphor. Although i am a live-and-let-live sort of person, i don't think this metaphor implies moral relativism. We can have morality, in the Hobbesian sense of a social contract, without relying on Biblical interpretations. Clearly, prohibition of same-sex marriage doesn't fall into this morality. There's no reasonable basis to think that allowing gays to marry is going to harm society. Stem-cell research? I think it's hard to argue that an embryo is a living human.

BTW, isn't killing real, live human beings frowned upon in the Bible? I could swear i remembering reading that.

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