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Garnett on religion
Posted by on Monday, March 26, 2007 at 12:48 pm

Professor Rick Garnett has an op-ed piece in USA Today about religious freedom and the separation of church and state, which he says “is widely misunderstood by critics and defenders alike.” He concludes:

The struggle for the church’s freedom in China reminds us that what the separation of church and state calls for is not a public conversation or social landscape from which God is absent or banished. The point of separation is not to prevent religious believers from addressing political questions or to block laws that reflect moral commitments. Instead, “separation” refers to an institutional arrangement, and a constitutional order, in which religious institutions are free and self-governing — neither above and controlling, or beneath and subordinate to, the state. This freedom limits the state and so safeguards the freedom of all — believers and non-believers alike.

Read the whole thing.




11 Comments on “Garnett on religion”

  1. Another NDLS-er Says:

    Ricky G is the man.

  2. David K. Says:

    I can think of one word that sums up my reaction to this:

    Amen :-)

  3. Aaron Says:

    An interesting article. Not much to argue with, although I would be curious to know exactly what he means when he says, “religious institutions [should not be] subordinate to the state.” I assume he doesn’t mean this in its most literal sense, wherein religious institutions are not subject to any of the civil or criminal laws of the state.

    Since he views separation of church and state as good for the church, I also assume he’d take a dim view of this address to the UN Human Rights Council, by Archbishop Silvano Tomasi. (via Andrew Stuttaford at The Corner)

    http://www.catholic.org/international/international_story.php?id=23515

    Some choice quotes:

    “One cannot consider the ridicule of the sacred as a right of freedom”

    “Abuse of rights of believers, even outright violence against them, state restrictions, undue impositions and persecution, public insult to religious feelings, unfortunately persist and call for remedy,” (emphasis mine)

    “Respect of the rights and dignity of others should mark the limit of any right, even that of the free expression and manifestation of one’s opinions, religious ones included.”

  4. Fourstringer Says:

    Democratic government and religion are fundamentally incompatible. Religion is not subject to the will of the majority. It is instead, a set of principles that MUST be obeyed. It is tyrannical. It is unique in that sense as it strikes at the core of a person’s being. (As an aside, religious doctrine may be changed, but generally only by those at the top of the hierarchy, think Vatican II).

    Thomas Jefferson knew this. He understood that no matter what societal pressure was placed on a man, that man would not change his religious beliefs. Even if torture was used.

    His solution was to simply remove government from either establishing a or prohibiting a religion. The simple reason was that government, especially democratic government, demands compromise while religious belief does not. Without compromise, men are apt to take up arms to defend their belief. This in turn threaten the stability of government (and of course the minority).

    So, despite Mr. Garnett’s assertion, the separation of church is to allow reasonable minds to compromise and preserve democratic government much more than it is for the protection of religion.

    Religion is to be tolerated because men will revolt if you demand them to submit to a new belief or abandon their belief. However, religion must also be sequestered to preserve the stability of a peaceful, working and democratic government.

    Because of it’s inherent tyrannical nature, religious authority is incompatible with freedom and democracy.

  5. dcl Says:

    One would hope that his statement re: church not subordinate to the state is meant primarily in terms that the Church is no more subordinate and should not be subordinated to a greater or lesser extent than any other organization. That is that the rights of religion not be subordinated to the rights of corporations, non profit organizations and the like. Functionally religion is subordinate to the state in that they must abide by all laws etc. etc. of the state in which they reside so long as those laws do not exist in an explicit or implicit way to hamper the rights of the church but instead are there to serve some public good–e.g. human sacrifice is illegal. Technically this might subordinate the requirements of some religion; however, it’s existence is to protect the citizenry from being murdered and not to stop a religious practice per se.

  6. David K. Says:

    It is instead, a set of principles that MUST be obeyed. It is tyrannical.

    Except for the obvious fact of I as a follower of a church can choose NOT to believe anytime i want. So basically your whole point falls apart right there. Religion is completely and 100% compatible with democracy so long as the religion does not try and replace the democracy. As a Catholic for example there is nothing inherently wrong with me advancing my belief that abortion is wrong and trying to pass a law against it, so long as I go through the same process anyone else can use to oppose my new law. Its not different than a member of Planned Parenthood pushing through a bill legalizing abortion. The source of ones beliefs should not matter. The problem with your premise Fourstringer is that it grants a superior position to those who base their worldviews on belief systems that you have deemed to be non-tyranical. If the beliefs of one group or another are deficient this should be played out in the democratic system, not pre-judged and thrown out because you or others like you create an artificial barrier because of, frankly, inaccurate portrayals.

    And yes, there are religious groups who believe that their system is superior to democracy and should replace it, and there yes you do draw the line, but not because they are religious but because they are ACTUALLY tyranical, but as history has shown us many times over a tyranical government need not be based on religion.

    Freedom OF religion does not mean freedom FROM religion. The seperation of church and state is to protect the CHURCH from the state not vice versa. The state should be protected from something because its dangerous whether it be religious or non-religious in nature. Religion is not only a valid part of life it should be embraced as part of our national culture. I find it incredibly hypocritical that it is often people who champion “diversity and culture” are also the first to suggest that religion should stay in peoples closets and not be accepted as part of our public culture.

    By all means, we must defend our democracy and our freedoms from groups that would suplant our democracy with a tyranny be it religious or otherwise. But simply because one advocates a view that may stem from religious beliefs is not enough to disqualify that view from consideration in the political arena.

  7. Fourstringer Says:

    Is it really an “obvious fact” that you can choose not to believe? If belief in God is just a choice, then it is really not that important is it?

    I find that premise to be faulty and based upon modern interpretations of religion. Traditionally (i.e. during Jefferson’s time) religion was much more than a choice. It is a deeply held belief that cannot be easily changed. Moreover, the institution of religion does not permit this sort of choice. Its the 10 Commandments, not the 10 Choices. This “cafeteria” Catholicism is a modern idea; and not what Jefferson was worried about.

    The fallacy of your argument is that you compare an individual’s “free will” with the institution of religion. An individual may be able to chose to reject god, but not the church. In that sense, it is tyrannical. Moreover, choosing not to believe, does not result in the religious doctrine disappearing or those following the religion to be free not to believe. That just makes you a heretic, outside the doctrine of religion. That’s like saying that because East Berliner’s chose to defect, East Germany was really democratic.

    In fact, that is the crux of my argument, individual freedom is contradictory to religious dogma. That is, one cannot have free will to reject God, then say you are following a religious doctrine. The church member’s cannot democratically vote off “adultery” from the 10 Commandments. Despite your protestations, religion is not democratic.

  8. Mad Max, Esquire Says:

    This is all well and good, but I seem to recall the Founding Fathers wanting to get away from the abuses of the Church of England and that’s why Jefferson did not want the State to recognize one church over all. The problem we have today is we have an effort in this nation to force the state to recognize conservative evangelical Christianity at the expense of not only Jews, Muslims, Hindus, athiests, etc, but also at the expense of Catholics, Mormons, mainline Protestants and even liberal factions of evangelical Christianity.

  9. David K. Says:

    Yes Fourstringer, any individual person can choose whether or not to belong to a certain religion and beyond that they can choose whether or not to even believe in any sort of higher being or beings. Furthermore your singling out of Christianity as the only religion is pretty much indicative of the true bias you hold.

    The fallacy of your argument is that you compare an individual’s “free will” with the institution of religion. An individual may be able to chose to reject god, but not the church. In that sense, it is tyrannical. Moreover, choosing not to believe, does not result in the religious doctrine disappearing or those following the religion to be free not to believe. That just makes you a heretic, outside the doctrine of religion. That’s like saying that because East Berliner’s chose to defect, East Germany was really democratic.

    How does this in any way, shape, or form impact a functioning democracy? ANY group you join is going to require you to hold to a certain set of beliefs or rules, if you choose not to follow those rules you by definition choose not to be a member of that group. Religion is no different than being a member of a fan club or a member of a service group or in fact a citizen of this country. By choosing not to follow the rules of that group you are saying I choose not to belong. Why single out religion?

    Again, there is nothing inherently compatible with religion and democracy. There may be incompatibilities between specific religious groups and democracy, but that is true of ANY set of groups. You can ALWAYS allow for the possiblity that some subset of some larger group is going to hold views that might be incompatible with democracy, but you don’t hold the superset responsible. White supremacists hold a view that is counter to democracy, therefore by your logic white people are incompatible with democracy.

    You claim that because religions require absolute belief in some higher power (which isn’t actually true, not all belief systems behave that way) that they can’t also function as part of a democracy, and I would ask you to prove that claim. Take myself for example. What prevents me, a practicing Catholic, from functioning in a Democracy? I and millions of others like me seem to be quite capable of doing just what you deny we can do. See the thing is, whatever decisions *I* as an individual make, it doesn’t matter in terms of democracy what they are guided by. I can quite easily choose to follow God in my own life and reflect that in how i vote for example. How is that any different than how YOU choose to live your life and how YOU vote.

    Just because some people use religion to justify their actions which are counter to the goals of democracy does not mean that religion is therefore incompatible. Thats a massive logical fallacy and the simple fact that for hundreds of years people who both believe in various faiths are able to succesfully participate in democracy proves that your theory is wrong.

  10. Fourstringer Says:

    David, you have it backwards. Democracy allows people to choose while religion restricts choices (ask women in Afghanistan).

    “Why single out religion.” Exactly. Why is it singled out in Constitution? Maybe because it is not like being in a fan club. I believe you are vastly underestimating the power of religion if you cannot distinguish between it and a fan club.

    Also, you are not following the argument. Religious institutions are inherently undemocratic. They have rules made by elite and you must follow them or be out, you have no choice. Very simple.

    Because of that, religious institutions were excluded from US Constitution. Jefferson and many of the early American leaders understood that religious doctrine, if incorporated into government, would trump democracy.

    On the flip side, banning religions doesn’t work either. People of faith don’t easily drop their principles. Thus, the Constitution was neutral on the issue. It only “protected” religions in the sense of not allowing the government to ban them (for fear that they would ban all other religions except one, and in effect cause a state religion). This was not to protect religion, but to avoid a clash which could devolve into the wars as in the 16th and 17th Century England.

    As for your claim of bias against Christianity, if you’d studied any history you’d know that the individuals who created the constitution by and large were concerned about inter-Christian fighting. They hardly discussed any other religion (though there are references to Islam).

    Believe it or not, the revolution was against religious doctrine in government (i.e. Church of England).

  11. David K. Says:

    Religion doesn’t restrict choice, thats bullshit. PEOPLE use religion to justify restricting choice. Claiming that the behavior of the Taliban somehow represents the actions of ALL religions is about as logical as claiming that Anne Coulter represents the behavior of all Republicans or Michael Moore represents the behavior of all Democrats.

    “Why single out religion.” Exactly. Why is it singled out in Constitution? Maybe because it is not like being in a fan club. I believe you are vastly underestimating the power of religion if you cannot distinguish between it and a fan club.
    Becuase there was a history in England of religious oppression. You clearly flunked history since you have completely and absolutely missed the lessons of the founding of this nation. The first ammendment includes the protection OF religion. They weren’t excluded at all, to claim such is either ignorance or worse outright lying. Hell many of the founding fathers were ACTIVE believers. They were concerned with a State religion at the expense of others, they weren’t concerened with inter-Christian fighting.

    Believe it or not, the revolution was against religious doctrine in government (i.e. Church of England).
    Wow. That is so completely and utterly wrong. It wasn’t about religious doctrine in government, it was government running religion. Do you understand what a State religion is? Do you know how it worked in England? I’m guessing not since you made the above statement. First, the revolution was about tyranny and being ruled from afar without representation. Second, the fight was for religious FREEDOM. The right to believe this or that and that the State couldn’t tell you what to believe and where your money would support one faith that was not your own. This again is not to say that religion is the problem, its to say that the STATE was the problem for mandating one belief over others. And if you paid attention in history you’d know that the constitution is protecting your right, my right, and everyone elses right to freely believe what they want, and part of that freedom is the right to express their beliefs, not have to hide them for fear of upsetting the state religion of anti-religion that you are espousing.


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