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Rephrasing Separation of Church and State

Why not just state that nobody should be discriminated for or against based on what they believe?

Written by johnleemk on 1:12:47 pm Aug 9, 2007.

One of the more controversial principles often expounded and propagated in liberal circles is that of separation of church and state. Whenever this phrase comes up in conversation, you can expect many of the religion-inclined to take umbrage, and attempt to justify a less wholly secular political worldview.

To those whose lives are governed by God and God alone, it is offensive to have a government where God plays no role — to them it is not a neutral ground, but one obviously slanted towards atheism or agnosticism.

Those on the other side of the divide would argue otherwise. To them, a secularist state is neutral because it does not favour any view of the world, religious or otherwise.

For those who insist that their religion and religious views should have significant power on the political stage, I have little to say. I doubt there is much I could do to change their minds.

But for those who are fence-sitters, it occurs to me that there is a possibly less offensively-sounding principle that nevertheless carries the same meaning and practical effect.

"Separation of church and state" sounds threatening to the religious, perhaps because it implies that the church (here I use "church" as a synonym for any religion, just for the sake of simplicity) has no role whatsoever to play in the political process — that any views it puts forward will automatically be rejected by the state simply because these views came from a religious source.

Most secularists would reject this interpretation, but addressing this misconception is something they nevertheless struggle with.

To me, and I think most people who believe religion should not govern the state, the key principle has always been that nobody should be discriminated for or against on the basis of their religion. Nobody should be treated differently, whether they are an atheist, Zoroastrian, Shiite Muslim, Seventh-Day Adventist, Theravada Buddhist, or what have you.

That is the key idea. The reason we have this phrase "separation of church and state" lies in the American Constitution, which officially prohibited the American government from declaring any religion to be the country's official religion.

And where did this principle come from? The fact that many of the American nation's founding fathers and patriarchs had fled religious persecution in their original homelands. It was this discrimination that drove the United States to prohibit mixing of religion and government.

That is the underlying first principle — that nobody be treated differently, positively or negatively, on the basis of what they believe. That is the nature of a true secular state.