One Wall or Two?
The first wall between church and state is the one which prevents the government from “establishing” any one religion. The other wall prevents the government from interfering with the “free exercise” of religion. The two walls taken together effectively separate church and state. The state is forbidden to help (the establishment clause) or hurt (the free exercise clause) one religion or religion in general. It creates confusion to write as if there were one wall and all we had to do was keep it “high.” In reality there are two walls and we must keep them in balance.
When the government’s powers were relatively small it was probably sufficient to watch out for deliberate efforts to promote or attack particular religious interests. But history has led to several rounds of expansion of federal power. Abraham Lincoln used the Civil War to dramatically expand the powers of the federal government. Franklin Roosevelt used the Depression and World War II to the same end. Big government isn’t inherently worse than small government but it is inherently more dangerous. The stronger the government the more watchful citizens need to be of their rights.
With a big government it is no longer sufficient to watch out for intentional efforts to promote or hinder religion. The unintentional effects are too large to safely ignore. The American left thinks that the Religious Right is trying to promote its own religious agenda. The Religious Right thinks that the Secular Left has been attacking them. Both sides think that the other side is the aggressor and their complaints about being attacked are paranoid and delusional. Dialogue between Left and Right would not be so polarized if both sides would recognize that there are two walls and it would be hard for Solomon himself to keep them in healthy balance under present circumstances.
Take the teaching of evolution in the public schools as an example. Such teaching is not religiously neutral in its effects. Learning real science explodes the foundations of literalist readings of Genesis. Genuine science is not inimical to religion in general but it is the enemy of some particular religious interests. There is no doubt that good science education causes the smarter kids from fundamentalist families to reject a lot of their parents’ teachings. These parents are not being paranoid when they feel that the public schools are undermining their efforts to raise good kids. Like most of my readers I think these parents are wrong about science and wrong about how to read the Bible, but a little more empathy on our part might help advance the dialogue. These parents are mostly good people who are legitimately worried about the harmful effects a secular society is having on their children. They are not our enemies; they are our neighbors. If we recognize that what is really driving them is a concern for their children’s well-being we will start to find common ground upon which to stand while resolving our differences.
(this is the fifth in a series of posts on the topic of fostering constructive dialogue across the Red-Blue divide.)