Tag Archives: separation of church and state

‘A Christian Country’

By Luke Brinker

“Britain is a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so,” UK Prime Minister David Cameron said Friday in a ceremony commemorating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.

Courtesy of the Guardian, here is more of what Cameron said to assembled Church of England clergy members in Oxford:

Cameron said there were three reasons why the King James Bible was as relevant today as any point in its history.

“First, the King James Bible has bequeathed a body of language that permeates every aspect of our culture and heritage. Second, just as our language and culture is steeped in the Bible, so too is our politics.

“Third, we are a Christian country. And we should not be afraid to say so. Let me be clear: I am not in any way saying that to have another faith – or no faith – is somehow wrong.

“I know and fully respect that many people in this country do not have areligion. And I am also incredibly proud that Britain is home to many different faith communities, who do so much to make our country stronger. But what I am saying is that the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today.”

Cameron added that while faith was neither a “necessary nor sufficient condition for morality” it could be a “helpful prod in the right direction”.

Predictably, Cameron’s remarks became the target of secularist fury. But as a nonbeliever (who nonetheless enjoys Anglican ceremonies and hymns, much like noted atheist and biologist Richard Dawkins), I still cannot find much to quibble with in Cameron’s speech. To see why, it’s useful to unpack Cameron’s  points listed above.

First, the King James Bible, published in 1611 at the behest of the flamboyant King James I, is something of which Britons, religious and secular alike, should rightly be proud. Earlier this year, the late Christopher Hitchens wrote a magnificent essay for Vanity Fair hailing the King James Bible’s contributions to literature, language, and culture.

Second, it’s technically true that Britain is a Christian country. The Church of England is the established state church. Queen Elizabeth II, the head of state, is the Church’s supreme governor. That doesn’t mean that the government forces Britons to attend Sunday services. (Indeed, attendance at Church of England services has steadily declined in recent years.) But many Britons look to the state church as a cultural as much as a religious institution, so much so that the term “Church of England atheist” is not uncommon.

Finally, Cameron displayed a sensitivity to those of both non-Christian faiths and no faith at all. From a Conservative Party prime minister, that’s more than audiences are likely to hear from any politician, Democratic or Republican, in the United States. It’s all well and good to pay homage to “people of faith” in minority religions, but voicing support for the choice not to believe is a bridge too far. We must constantly hear our leaders conclude their speeches with the insincere, “God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.”

It’s also important to consider the source of the comments. Cameron is indeed a Conservative, but that doesn’t quite mean the same thing in Britain that it does in the US. To be sure, his austerity agenda places him firmly right-of-center on economic issues, but Cameron also supports abortion rights and gay marriage. Candidates for leadership of the Conservative Party don’t have face questions over whether they believe in evolution, because unlike in the US, Darwin’s theory is broadly accepted for what it is – the basis for modern biology. The significance of these positions within the context of Cameron’s Oxford speech is that unlike US politicians who call ours a “Christian country,” Cameron isn’t harnessing his nation’s cultural and religious heritage to support a set of anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-science policies. That’s the agenda pursued by candidates like Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, who assert (falsely) that the US was founded as a Christian nation. So while their sanctimonious drivel offends me, Cameron’s speech does not.

1 Comment

Filed under religion

Republican Hypocrisy Watch: Freedom of Religion Edition

By Luke Brinker

Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA)

You need not look any further than this past week’s Values Voters Summit, where Republican candidates highlighted their social conservative, godly credentials, to see that the American right denies that the First Amendment institutes the separation of church and state. To hear Michele Bachmann and her ilk tell it, the notion of a “wall of separation” (a phrase that stems from a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association) is a Big Lie propagated by what Bill O’Reilly calls the “secular progressives.”

So how do social conservatives square their professed adherence to the Constitution with their constant fusing of religion and politics? Liberals make the mistake of assuming social conservatives are either stupid or hypocrites, but there actually is a conservative argument that pledges fealty to the First Amendment’s religious freedom clauses while simultaneously supporting the inter-mingling of religion and public affairs. To understand where conservatives are coming from, it’s useful to consider some background.

The First Amendment’s religious freedom guarantee consists of two clauses. The free exercise clause protects the right of citizens to practice (or not practice) any faith of their choosing. Most of the controversy surrounding the free exercise clause deals with how far the government should go in accommodating those who choose to exercise a particular faith. For instance, in the 1963 case Sherbert v. Verner, the Supreme Court ruled that the government needed to demonstrate a compelling state interest before it could refuse unemployment compensation to an individual who lost her job because it conflicted with the practice of her religion.

The establishment clause is the more divisive of the two clauses. The First Amendment expressly prohibits the establishment of a state religion. Liberals and conservatives agree that this means there can’t be a national church, as in England. But they divide over whether government support for religious symbols and institutions amounts to an unconstitutional government endorsement of a specific brand of religion. (For example, does posting the Ten Commandments at the entrance to a court house effectively establish Judeo-Christianity as the state faith?) Liberals adopt the strict separationist argument that the government must maintain absolute neutrality with respect to all faiths, so things like Ten Commandments displays and public funding for religious institutions violate the establishment clause. Conservatives, on the other hand, argue that the establishment clause merely precludes the government from interfering in the affairs of religious groups. It’s perfectly fine for the government to fund “faith-based initiatives,” for example, as long as government officials aren’t telling the religious group what to believe and preach. It follows that what the framers really aimed to avoid through the establishment clause was the government telling religions what they could and couldn’t do.

But wait – for House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, a Republican from California, it’s quite acceptable for the government to dictate the behavior of clergy – when it comes to making sure they don’t perform same-sex weddings:

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said Friday he’d rather see Congress fail to pass a defense authorization bill for the first time in half a century than give ground on contentious provisions that seek to direct suspected terrorists into military custody and to ban gay marriages by military chaplains.

This is apparently what happens when conservative constitutional principles conflict with right-wing bigotry against gays and lesbians.

Leave a comment

Filed under conservatism, conservatives, constitution, gay marriage, religion, Republicans