Government, religion should stay apart

By Tibor Machan

During the Q&A after a recent presentation I made to a Rotary club about the meaning of the Declaration of Independence, I was asked whether I believe what the Pledge of Allegiance states about “under God.”

I do not usually answer this question because I share the view that when it comes to religion, it’s just too personal to bandy about in public, especially when the topic of my presentation didn’t have much to do with it. But there is an aspect of this issue worth reflecting about.

Of course, a voluntary organization such as Rotary has every right — and may most reasonably be expected — to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of its meetings. In a culture in which most citizens are monotheists of one or another type, something like the Pledge, with its line about “One nation, under God,” will be widely and significantly recited. The interesting issue is whether public institutions, involving the various levels and branches of government, ought to use the Pledge with this line figuring so prominently.

The government of the United States is supposed to have as its central purpose “to secure our rights.” That means the rights of everyone, not only its monotheistic, atheist, agnostic or pantheist citizens. Thus in an important respect the prohibition of the coupling of any faith or philosophical viewpoint and the government must apply, and most sensibly so.

Government may not champion agnosticism, pantheism, atheism or any other form of commitment — or non-commitment — to religion. The government must only be concerned with something that pertains to everyone, which happens to be just what the Founders believed — to secure everyone’s basic individual rights.

However, when government becomes entangled in as many aspects of the society as ours has, it is impossible to insist that it remain divorced from people’s religious or non-religious convictions.

Remember the high school football team whose captain wanted to say a prayer before a game, with the full consent of his teammates? Surely that makes perfectly good sense.

Or suppose some elementary or high school in Kansas or New Hampshire has a policy of saying a prayer before classes commence? That, too, is perfectly understandable — religion and school are intricate elements of people’s lives, and to expect the two to be kept separate by law is absurd.

Trouble is that with all these aspects of society being treated as if they were a matter of public policy — namely something that governments are involved with — the separation between religious or non-religious convictions and government is impossible to uphold.

In consequence, those in the various minorities will see their views squelched by those in the majority, simply because of the nature of public institutions. This would not occur if the government kept to its proper task, the protection of our rights.

Apart from some pro-forma involvement with religion — such as a prayer at the opening of Congress — there would be no incursion of government-sponsored religion, or non-religion, in our social lives. Those who are members of Rotary would be perfectly free to proclaim whatever their allegiance happens to be for no one would be forced to be part of the organization. And those going to private schools would be free to adhere and proclaim whatever beliefs they took to their hearts.

But with government, and government schools, everyone is involved, simply by being a citizen. That’s precisely one of the reasons government must be strictly limited to its essential function, to serve us in the one capacity this can happen, namely as the protector of our universal, unalienable rights.

It should not be involved in sports, education, entertainment, science and the other myriad aspects of society wherein folks often wish to give some expression to their deeply held convictions. Government should not be in the position of having to speak for us all when, in fact, it can only speak for some of us, as do various organizations such as Rotary.

In the United States, religion is part of most people’s lives, yet governments are supposed to be kept separate from it precisely because there are so many people with widely different religions — or non-religions.

And this has worked quite nicely for the most part — there are no overt religious battles on U.S. soil, not like in many societies around the globe and throughout history.

But the more the government encroaches on various parts of our society that are not any of its proper business, the more difficult it will be to keep the peace among all those who take their religion —or its absence — seriously in life.

Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at:
Machan@chapman.edu