A moment for the Constitution

You may have noticed that in my 'External Links' list, one of the only two sites I list is the site US Constitution Online run by a former colleague of mine, the esteemed Steve Mount. This is one of the few sites I frequent on a regular basis - not because the US Constitution changes that often, but because there always seems to be a new issue or idiot which challenges our understanding of that fine document, and that site boasts a great message board to discuss both or either.

With the recent focus on the separation of Church and State, I was moved to post the following. I liked the sounds of my own words so much, I'm moved to repost them here (In fact, this is the second post of mine to make it into that site's 'Message Hall of Fame' - aren't I special?). Comment away, if you're so inclined:

>on Mar 29th, 2005, 2:42am, R._George_Dunn wrote: And also, where should values and morals come from if not from their beliefs, some secularist man god?
We've had this discussion around here before, but for the benefit of newcomers:

There are many ways which values can be derived. Religion is one means of enshrining values, but by no means the only one. For any society to effectively survive and prosper, the members agree on a set of rules. For example: Don't kill your neighbor without sufficient provocation. And its reciprocal: Try not to provoke your neighbor into killing you. As society develops, it 'creates' additional values by identifying behaviors which create an environment in which most members prosper. This general pattern of development can be seen in every society - from the US to China to tribal Africa. Only the details are different (which leads us to moral relativism, but your position seems to indicate you're not ready to hear that argument). This is pretty much Sociology 101.

These rules don't require the force of religion to propagate, but it doesn't hurt. The notion that 'God said it' does lend a bit of weight to a standard, after all. But there are and have been a number of secular societies who have similar standards to those you'd find espoused by religious ones. Consider nearly any of the Eastern countries, for example, where Buddhism is the biggest influencer (Buddhists do not believe in God).

And of course, if one tries to maintain that God is the arbiter of all man's values, and so must be recognized in law, you're left with the question of which god to choose. The Jewish Yahweh? Jesus and pals? Allah? (all from the same family, but each with a different handbook, with different emphasis on certain values). Or should we choose from the Hindu pantheon? Or how about our American Indian co-tenants? Recall that the most revered of ancient civilizations (Greek, Roman, Egyptian) believed in what we commonly call "mythology" today, and yet they had very similar values without the benefit of today's "true" religion(s).

If you pick one (or more) of the above to recognize in law, then you're running smack into the restrictions of the 1st Amendment. By the act of enshrining a religious value in law, you've established a gov't position favoring one religion or another. Even the watered-down interpretation of "In God We Trust" establishes at the least an official endorsement of Theism (excluding those Buddhists we were talking about before) and at worst a specific endorsement of Monotheism (now you're excluding the Hindus as well).

It would be equally bad to say "We the People Officially Deny God's existance," by the way. That's Atheism. Nor is Agnosticism ("We the People Haven't got a Clue") appropriate. Both of these positions would conflict with the 1st amendment by establishing a gov't position on religion.

Secularism, however, is not atheism. The motto of Secularism on God(s) might be "We the People Have No Comment At This Time." Any and all laws (or lawfully sanctioned act) must be able to pass what's called the Lemon test. A law has to have a valid civil, or secular, purpose and effect. Laws which enshrine what we know as 'values,' (e.g. murder, violent crime, theft, etc.), pass this test on the basis of the negative effect of those acts on society. That some of them happen to be echoed by most of the major philosophies or religions is just gravy. It's not relevant to the discussion.

This does not mean that it is not valuable to understand the history of religion and its influence on society. Most historians will tell you that there are few things like religion which drove people to "influence" each other - usually with the pointy end of some kind of metal implement. But the United States has been shaped by our unique approach to creating an environment where individuals are free to practice their faith without any influence - good or bad - from the state.