- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2009


In Everson v. the Board of Education (1947), the Supreme Court inaugurated the era of church-state separation as the official policy of the judicial branch.

The court thought it was possible and necessary to separate religion from the civil government, but found how difficult it was to enact this policy in specific cases. The doctrine of separation led to many disparate decisions, revealing the incoherency of the policy and an underlying problem - the problem of defining religion in the first place.

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Often what we call religion is based on the arbitrary use of language, not some eternal form dwelling in the heavens above. We call Buddhism a religion, but the historical Buddha expressed agnostic opinions about the existence of God, an afterlife and other matters often associated with the term. We refer to communists as nonreligious, but they venerate Marx like a prophet and think of history as marching toward an ultimate, teleological and metaphysical goal of equality and social justice.

The same name game transpires when assigning a simple label to the political ideology of our nation. The court cannot wave its magic wand and declare every valuable concept of government the sole product of secular influence or sagacity. Historically, ideas like democracy, capitalism, federal and countervailing government were developed and spread throughout the English-speaking world by Puritans, long before the sons of the Enlightenment. Philosophically, notions like equality and liberty find no justification without metaphysical prejudgment.

The inability of the court to define the nature of religion demonstrates the poverty of their concept of church-state separation. To separate the two realms one must provide a clear definition of what is sacred and secular and then divide them. Without clarity, the wall of separation becomes the court’s will to power, designed to eliminate certain elements according to the arbitrary prejudices of jurists.

Our Founding documents spoke in a better and clearer language. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786) disestablished the Anglican Church and rejected the exclusion of certain people based on a pre-established litmus test about their religious affiliation. The U.S. Constitution followed the spirit of the statute and rejected the establishment of a national church, as well as religious tests for holding office. Both documents rejected any permanent commitment to certain groups, but never pretended that religion or what is associated with the term provides no contribution to the people’s concept of government a posteriori.

Even if the court could define religion, there is no indication that faith serves as some alien force, needing exorcism, unworthy of representation, as if it can and should be disentangled from the affections of the people in forging government policy. Both documents rejected the notion of a state-sponsored monopoly, but neither eliminated religious influence and established an “a-theocracy” or secular government in its place. All religious people were given access to the political process and were not forced to disavow their faith and become something else as a price of admission.

This is why the citizens of Virginia and all those who love liberty need to support the New Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

The new statute fully supports its predecessor but believes that times have changed and the provisions need to be updated in light of the current circumstance. Today the enemy of liberty is no longer found in the Anglican Church or any specific denomination but within the power-hungry secular government that demands ever-increasing offerings beyond any religious establishment of the past.

This government is not neutral in its treatment of religious people when it refuses to represent their ideas and symbols and exalts secular forces as the paradigm for our affections as a nation. As the secular government increases in power and becomes more and more the center of attention, it is impossible to ignore this situation as leading to anything other than the marginalization of the church and its continual and eventual demise.

While a remnant of the civil religion is still around and some politicians like President Obama and Gov. Tim Kaine make occasional reference to religion as influencing their public lives, these few references represent a small resistance to the basic mentality of the court and its secular establishment.

A new statute is needed to reject the capricious decisions of the court and provide the opportunity for all people to find a just representation in society through the democratic process.

This country owes a debt of gratitude to the religious people of the past, who deconstructed their faith and developed democracy (congregationalism), equality (priesthood of the believers), capitalism (the Protestant work ethic), federalism (covenant theology), progress (postmillennialism), toleration (the example of Jesus), et al. This country needs to honor these people in the future as first-class citizens.

Check out the statute, its rationale, and our political action group at newvastatute.org.

Stephen Strehle is an associate professor of philosophy and religion at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va. He has written a number of books and articles, including his latest, “The Egalitarian Spirit of Christianity: The Sacred Roots of American and British Government” (Transaction Publishers).

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