Religion is the bedrock of the Holiday Season. Although Christmas has been thoroughly commercialized, while many observers of Christmas, Hanukkah, and various other celebrations embrace holiday traditions for social reasons and tolerate the religious message, pervasive public displays of religious symbolism raise questions about the role of religion in a democratic society. With control of the Executive Branch of the US government returning to the Republican Party, which is seen as a more religious political faction, even though Donald Trump is not a particularly religious person, the role of religion in government is of particular concern.
In the US, for example, the First Amendment guarantees the religious freedom of all citizens. For the religious, this means the government cannot infringe upon one’s worship of God and must protect citizens from religious persecution. For the nonreligious, this means the government must protect one’s right to abstain from religion. When it comes to cultural traditions, such as the public celebration of Christmas, the religious are more inclined to argue that government must protect the religious rights of citizens by honoring Christmas and an equalizing embrace of other religious traditions; whereas, the non-religious are more inclined to argue that government officials must protect the religious freedoms of citizens by distancing themselves from religious symbols and religious traditions.
liClearly, such arguments are not simply about Christmas trees and holiday vacations. They are about the separation of Church and State. For many religious individuals, the separation of Church and State is an attempt by atheists to suppress religion while others feel it is a necessity easily fulfilled by government providing equal support for all religions. Many nonreligious individuals believe separation of Church and State can only be achieved by rooting out all religious messages from government. Proper balance is, however, needed to achieve an effective separation of Church and State that both protects the religious and the areligious. To understand what separation of Church and State requires, it is important to first understand why religion and politics should not be mixed.
Politics tends to be a corrupting force. Those in politics, after all, seek power and the quest of power tends to corrupt. The only concrete means of combating the corrupting nature of politics is through civic engagement, which requires the public to constantly question the thinking and decisions of policymaker. On the other hand, religion requires commitment and faith in religious doctrine, which by extension requires commitment and faith in religious leaders. When religious leaders are politicized, which is boldly exemplified by the Catholic Church Child Abuse Scandal, religion is opened to the power of corruption. When political leaders evoke religion in their quest for power, whether or not they intend to abuse the faith of the Faithful, they use God to promote their public policy positions and immunize themselves against necessary scrutiny. There is, therefore, a need for the separation of Church and State.
The potential political benefit of religious beliefs is their ability to act as standards for how all people are to be treated, which is helpful when building a healthier society free of antisocial behavior like crime, discrimination, and egocentric attitudes. The downside of religion is that it can alienate individuals with alternative beliefs and dissenting views; thus, religion should not dictate policy or be the deciding factor in a political issue. The responsibility of a political leader is to help govern by representing their constituents. The role of religious leaders is to offer followers moral support and guidance on how to live their lives. Like politicians, it is their role to organize and strengthen their community. It is not, however, the role of religious leaders to write laws, enforce regulations, tax, or take punitive measures nor it is their role to influence public policy matters.
Furthermore, religion is part of the cultural and personal identity of religious individuals. A religion individuals and religious public officials will, therefore, support public policies that coincide with their religious beliefs. There are also those who would testify that America is inherently a Christian Country, but such arguments are often filled with misconceptions and inaccurate historic references. The truth is that America does espouse moral and social standards that coincide with the expectations of the Christian faith, among others, as there are ties to religion while the Forefathers of the US did appreciate the value of these aspirations. In other words, America has a cultural identity, which reflects the religious history and culture of the American People.
There is, however, a vast difference between advocating for public policies that reflect and coincide with the religious beliefs of citizens and a religious government that tries to enact religious doctrine. The religious protections afforded to the American People by the First Amendment government can only be fulfilled if government abstains from supporting any or all religions. Separation of Church and State disallows the use of public resources to indoctrinate individuals into the religious faith of those who control such institutions. On the other hand, members of any given group have the same right to use public resources and the Constitution protects the freedom of religious choice, so religious-themed groups have the same rights as every other group to use public resources.
If government disallowed a religious group from enjoying the same privileges as a nonreligious group, it would be discouraging religious freedom. This would be a form of discrimination against religion that the Constitution does not allow. It is, therefore, the application of public resources to a religious message that violates Constitutional provisions against using public resources to spread the word of God, because such funding does infringe upon the First Amendment rights of other individuals. Looking at the example of Holiday displays in public areas, including government buildings, there is not an inherent violation of the separation of Church and State principle as long as other individuals of other religions are allowed the same considerations. Preaching the story of Jesus from the steps of a government building would, however, violate the separation of Church and State.
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