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October 18, 2004

America: Forgetting Our Own Formative Lessons of History

One of the founding principles of our nation, deeply informing the constitution, is the separation of pillars of influence -- not just within the govenment apparatus (Administration, Legislature and Courts), but also of church, state and political speech. These are separated because the lessons of history that our founders had absorbed, show that concentration of power produces tyranny over those without the power. That is, it leads inevitably to suppression of other people's views and oppression (ostracism, imprisonment, death, exile) of those holding those organizing for freedom to express those views. And that leads to strife and the inability to achieve the overall societal aims.

That is a lesson the founders learned and built into our constitution in an effort to build an enduring, pluralistic society.

That is a lesson that President Bush hasn't learned and if Bush is elected in 2004, this grand experiment in tolerance may come to an ignominious end.

Today there is a clear desire to merge church and state as expressed by right-wing Catholic bishops and the evangelical fundamentalists including President Bush, Tom Delay, etc. And abetted by a certain ambivalence by many.

As well as opposition to this attempt as well:

While a huge majority (72 percent) affirms that a US president should have strong religious beliefs ...most are wary about involvement of religious leaders and houses of worship in partisan politics.

On the surface, this seems reasonable: why shouldn't religions be able to dictate to their followers how to vote? Why shouldn't they be able to engage in partisan electioneering to support a candidate, a party, a ballot measure, or legislation?

To see why this is a problem, let's refresh our memory: the first amendment of our constitution addresses several things in equal measure:

"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."

Why are these rights separate? Because a democracy is founded on the ability of people to make free election choices. If one religious view is established over others, democracy ends. If people aren't allowed to publicly express their views, democracy is ended. If people can't organize and act collectively to induce change, democracy is ended.

Let us take but one example, Republican zealots have repeatedly attempted to allow religious organizations to endorse candidatesa and engage in partisan electioneering, àlà HR 235, referenced above.

Today, some Catholic bishops and evangelicals are united in their desire to pursue this direction. Today this appears as a united front of christians. But if they succeed, soon they will begin fighting with each other over which church's interpretations are the right ones.

And, as I wrote to The New York Times:

Political speech is the most fundamental free speech. As churches become political machines, are they prepared for the implications that services are now political events? Are ministers and worshipers ready for the excersize by others of their own free-speech rights? Do worshipers really want to have to push their way through a gauntlet of protesters? How long will it be before evangelicals are protesting at mosques, Catholics against Unitarians? Will churches be available to those who disagree with them?

Our constitution separates religion from state and from speech so that each can have its protected domain of influence in our lives. If we merge them, we will open a Pandora's Box of intolerance.

Well, perhaps some of these people haven't forgotten, but like Bush they never learned.

However, John Kerry knows the formative lessons of this nation and will maintain our constitution, not run roughshod over it.

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