Sunday, October 25, 2009

Deism, Separation of Church and State

At Latin mass this morning, the priest (philosopher guy) spoke about the separation of church and state. Or, more accurately, he spoke against it. He quoted a statement by Pope Benedict (I think) that said removing God from the public sphere deprives people of the strength and hope that can come through religion. The priest also said that states can establish a religion, although the First Amendment prohibits the U.S. Congress from doing so. He mentioned the possibility of a “Catholic nation” (which would probably scare Seventh-Day Adventists), even though, earlier in his homily, he denied that Jesus wanted to establish a theocracy. While he said that he didn’t want the pope to directly dictate to Catholic politicians how to vote, he did affirm that Catholic politicians should be guided by Catholic principles, which are in accord with natural law. And he warned that the separation of church and state could harm the church, which occurs whenever the IRS has problems with the Catholic church being involved in politics.

To his credit, the priest didn’t regurgitate the usual “religious right” narrative of American history, in which all of the founding fathers were devout Christians attempting to establish a Christian nation. Rather, he said that the founding fathers were deists, who believed that God created the world and then walked away from it. The priest also acknowledged that America’s civil religion has a history of anti-Catholicism. He was probably responding to those who wonder why there are Catholics on the side of the “religious right,” when America wasn’t exactly friendly to Catholics in its “Christian nation” days. But the priest said that the founding fathers at least believed in God, so we shouldn’t remove religion from public life.

Here are some reactions:

1. Did the deist founding fathers believe that God created the world and had nothing to do with it afterwards? I have problems buying this. Thomas Jefferson was supposedly a deist, and he wrote the Declaration of Independence, which committed the cause of the American colonists to the care of divine providence. The word “providence” implies God’s continued involvement in the world.

At the same time, as I look through Thomas Paine’s anti-Christian, pro-deist book, The Age of Reason, I get mixed feelings about deist beliefs regarding God’s relationship with the world. Paine clearly believes that one can know God through God’s creation. As he beautifully affirms in Chapter 9:

Do we want to contemplate his power? We see it in the immensity of the creation. Do we want to contemplate his wisdom? We see it in the unchangeable order by which the incomprehensible Whole is governed. Do we want to contemplate his munificence? We see it in the abundance with which he fills the earth. Do we want to contemplate his mercy? We see it in his not withholding that abundance even from the unthankful. In fine, do we want to know what God is? Search not the book called the scripture, which any human hand might make, but the scripture called the Creation.

Does he believe that God continues to provide for his creation? Perhaps. He said above that God doesn’t withhold abundance from the unthankful. And, in Chapter 10, he offers mild praise for something Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:

The only passage that occurs to me, that has any reference to the works of God, by which only his power and wisdom can be known, is related to have been spoken by Jesus Christ, as a remedy against distrustful care. “Behold the lilies of the field, they toil not, neither do they spin.”

So Paine seems to believe that God takes care of his creation. But Paine also says this:

The Almighty lecturer, by displaying the principles of science in the structure of the universe, has invited man to study and to imitation. It is as if he had said to the inhabitants of this globe that we call ours, “I have made an earth for man to dwell upon, and I have rendered the starry heavens visible, to teach him science and the arts. He can now provide for his own comfort, AND LEARN FROM MY MUNIFICENCE TO ALL, TO BE KIND TO EACH OTHER.”

That seems to imply that God made a universe that benefits human beings, so people don’t need God’s continual intervention. The universe already is beneficial to people, in a built-in sort of way. In this mindset, God’s act of love that should inspire our ethics occurred when he gave us such a good cosmos.

2. Where do I stand on the separation of church and state? I don’t agree with removing religion from public life, so I have no problem with the Ten Commandments being in courthouses. In this area, the ACLU and American Atheists should get a life. I also have no problem with religion being a sort of conscience to the nation. To its credit, the religious right does this when it comes to the lives of the unborn, but the well-being of other vulnerable people in America doesn’t quite make its radar. Sure, many of them are quite generous when it comes to charitable donations, but they’re not as interested in addressing larger social problems. Their charitable donations are like their characterization of welfare: the poor get a check, but the problems that keep the poor down remain. While the religious right does well to ask if the government addresses problems or only makes things worse, they should be more than the “Just say no” people: if something doesn’t work, they should explain where the weakness lies and offer an alternative.

In my times of personal revolt against evangelical Christianity, I can somewhat understand the concerns of gays and lesbians. They wonder why Christian beliefs against homosexuality should be manifest in a public policy that works against them, when they themselves don’t adhere to those beliefs. They believe that the state recognizing gay marriage is consistent with the American tradition of pluralism.

But I also recoil from the line of “What I do in the privacy of my own home is my business, and nobody else’s.” Take, for instance, the religious right’s opposition to pornography. Many believe that they should be able to read and watch what they want without being told what to do by a bunch of prudes. But I do think that the church should be a conscience that speaks against the dehumanization of women and the cheapening of sex that pornography promotes. Our sexually laissez-faire attitude hasn’t helped this nation, as the number of unwanted pregnancies and STD’s make clear. But should we legislate morality? Or a more appropriate question would be, “Can we legislate morality?” More appropriate still: “When should we legislate morality?”, since any law we pass makes a moral judgment.


  1. Try sometime to catch "Secrets of the Founding Fathers" on the History channel. The founding fathers were hardly concerned with what God thought about anything--unless you're talking about the "god" of THIS world!

  2. I totally want to read the Age of Reason now!

    Someone told me a while back that I seemed more like a deist! ;-)

    I said that if I was was a Christian one.

    I think its interesting that so many of the movers and shakers from the nation's founding were deists of one stripe or another.

    I wonder if the idea that humans were responsible for doing things themselves was empowering to them.

  3. Those are excellent quotes, aren't they? When I first read Paine, I was more interested to see how my faith survived his book rather than focusing on the beauty of what he was saying. By now, I've pretty much heard the usual anti-Bible arguments over and over, so I could look at some of the good stuff.

  4. Love the quotes and this post is excellent, James!


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