Religion has always been linked to political power, often controlled by kings and despots. In a democracy, there's a different kind of link. Freedom allows everyone to raise questions, confront dogma and challenge beliefs. That's why maintaining the complete separation of church and state is crucial.
Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting the United States in the early 19th century, identified this separation as crucial to democratic governance. Religion gave support to democratic political institutions because it restrained the exercise of liberties, appealing to conscience and morality in lieu of imposition by the state.
De Tocqueville's words came to life in the controversy over the cartoons satirizing Muhammed in the European newspapers, and Muslim reaction threw in sharp relief the differences between East and West. Cartoons in Middle Eastern newspapers depicting the Jewish star placed across a swastika and Jews with hooked noses adorned in Nazi helmets, slaying innocents, were widely reviled by Jews, but Jewish mobs did not set out to torch embassies or to kill one another in protest. So where is the outrage of "moderate" Muslims over the way the suicide bombers invoke the name of Muhammed on behalf of the slaughter of innocents?
The Frenchman was surprised by the pervasive religious atmosphere he found here, and in interviews with both clergy and laymen, he never met anyone who doubted that it was this separation of church and state that enabled religious belief to flourish. In times of enlightenment and democracy, he argued, the human spirit does not readily accept dogmatic beliefs except through faith. ". . . [A]t such times above all, religions should be most careful to confine themselves to their proper sphere, for if they wish to extend their power beyond spiritual matters they run the risk of not being believed at all," he wrote in his classic, "Democracy in America" (Ed. Note: This classic is on sale for 25% off this week at the Townhall Book Service.)
The Founding Fathers certainly thought this to be true, which is why God is invoked throughout our early history as the unifying force for equality, without dogma intruding into the specific details of government. The spirit rather than the letter of the law says "we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights." Like de Tocqueville, we cannot see into the secret places of the hearts of those who express faith in their religion; the benefit of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition is in its inspiration for our small-r republican institutions.
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