Where to draw the line: separating church and state

| Senior Forum Editor

According to a new poll announced under the fairly self-explanatory banner in the Huffington Post,  “Christianity as state religion supported by one-third of Americans, poll finds,” a comfortable chunk of Americans really hate the Constitution. Given that separation of church and state is supposedly a given in America, should we the people be alarmed? The answer is both no and yes. There’s a huge gap between supporting the idea of a state religion and establishing a theocracy. But if the poll is indeed  accurate, it is a lens into the idea that the separation of church and state is actually valued in this country.

It turns out that the poll cited is a national Hufffington Post/YouGov survey of 1,000 adults. Not to bash the Huffington Post, but I trust their polling a little less than that of say, the good people at Nielson. Regardless, of the individuals surveyed, 34 percent favor establishing Christianity as the official state religion in his or her own state; 47 percent opposed this move. Thirty-two percent would support making Christianity the official national religion via a change to the Constitution, with 52 percent opposed. The remaining 19 and 16 percent, respectively, are presumably in favor of making Pastafarianism the state religion, or something like that.

Given the publication and the subject matter, this might just sound like another liberal outrage flavor of the week. However, the poll is not without a certain degree of timeliness. Two North Carolina state representatives drafted a bill in response to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union that, if passed, would have made the state a sovereign entity exempt from federal court rulings and the establishment clause. The original lawsuit was meant to prevent county commissioners in Rowan County from having a Christian prayer session at a meeting. The technical term for this is “overkill.” The bill was quickly quashed—as it should have been. That the idea even got off the ground is more troubling. It’s not that religion is “bad” and that politics should be devoid of a moral compass; it’s that establishing a state religion soundly tramples on the rights of everyone to choose what to believe. That this is still an issue that is up for debate in the 21st century disturbs me, not in the least because arguments in favor of blurring the line between church and state are often presented as violating the rights of the religious. I can’t think of any explanation for establishing a state religion that makes sense other than to assert, by law, the dominance of one group (in this case, Christians) over another (anyone who is not).

I have to say, though, that I was mildly irritated when I saw this story on the front page of HuffPost. And I really shouldn’t have been: this kind of semi-sensationalist story is the tofu-’n-taters of liberal online publications like HuffPost. As much as I embrace the hippy-dippy liberal vibe, it’s exhausting to be constantly up in arms.  Fear the fundamentalists. Fear this. Fear that. The headline for the original HuffPost article when it first ran was “In God They Trust.” All caps and no context: the best way to be, right? The “us” versus “them” mentality doesn’t quite do it for me, especially because even those people who want an established state religion have a right to their opinion. It’s not just the HuffPost; this sort of attitude pervades debate on all points on the political spectrum. Regardless, the supposedly hard line between the separation of church and state is not as cut and dry as it should be.

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