Maybe you’ve followed the controversy about the idea called ‘Intelligent Design.’ That’s the notion that living organisms are simply too complex to have evolved merely by such natural processes as the biological theory of evolution describes, and that it’s necessary, therefore, to postulate a designing Intelligence to explain the living systems we see.
Advocates of Intelligent Design (ID) have claimed that it’s a scientific theory, a legitimate rival of the Darwinian theory, that warrants being taught in the science classes of America’s public schools.
Critics of ID –and this includes almost all actual scientists who have weighed in on the matter– have declared that ID isn’t science at all. Instead, they say, it is a way of sneaking religion into the public schools, an idea directly descended from the ‘creationism’ whose inclusion in the public school curriculum the courts have found to be an unconstitutional government ‘establishment’ of religion.
Now, in his latest fit of pique, Pat Robertson has blown the cover of ID.
The object of Robertson’s ire on this occasion was the citizenry of the town of Dover, Pennsylvania. These people just recently voted to replace a school board that had mandated the teaching of ID in the local public schools with another slate of candidates opposed to putting ID in the science curriculum.
If something bad happens to you, Robertson said to the people of Dover, don’t bother turning to God. He might not be there for you, he warned them, because “you just voted God out of your city.”
So there it is. If rejecting the inclusion of Intelligent Design is to be understood as “voting God out,” then surely it follows that what ID is about is bringing God in. Sounds like religion to me.
Which leads me to a question for all those Christians out there who have been militating for ID in the public schools. Did you already know what Pat Robertson seems to have known, that ID is about religion, and not science?
If the answer to that question is yes, I have another question for you. In your understanding of Christian morality, is honesty very important? Or does your Christian ethic say that the end justifies the means, i.e. that it’s OK to lie about what you’re up to, if what you’re up to is making sure that children get indoctrinated with your religious beliefs?
But if the idea that ID is not about science, but about promoting your religion, comes to you as a surprise, then I wonder, would that discovery lead you to withdraw your demand that ID be taught in our public schools?
What Would Jesus Say? Church/State and the Golden Rule
ID is, of course, only one of the battlefields in an intensifying struggle over the issue of Church/State relations. We’ve had the Alabama justice with his monument to the Ten Commandments in the courthouse building. We’ve got people wanting to put prayer back into the public schools. We’ve got faith-based initiatives. Etc.
In all these cases, the people who want to instill aspects of their religion are members of America’s dominant faith. That is, they are Christians. More than that, they are members of a large and dynamic movement within American Christianity. That is to say, they are the ones who have enough clout to be quite confident that if the wall of separation between Church and State gets torn down, it is their religion that will be backed by power and imposed on everyone else.
I wonder if they’d want that wall torn down if they were in the position of a small and vulnerable minority. Would they want it torn down, for example, it were Hindu and not Christian prayers that would be recited, and Hindu stories of creation and moral precepts that would be taught, etc.?
Actually, I don’t really wonder. I feel sure that, if power in their society rested with Hindus, or Buddhists, or Muslims, these Christians who are so avid now to wed religion to political power would think the “separation of Church and State” a vital part of our American system of limited government and personal liberty.
And they’d be right.
America’s Founding Fathers sought to erect that wall for a good reason. It is not because they were hostile to religion (though the Deism toward which many of our Founders leaned was a worldview rather different from what many Christian conservatives nowadays suppose in their declarations that the United States was founded as “a Christian nation”). No, it was not any aversion to religion but rather a love of peace and a respect for individual liberty.
Our Founders knew well the costs of allowing coercion and faith to marry. Europe had been through a couple centuries of the most brutal religious warfare. In their wisdom, America’s Founders attempted to set up a society that would not recapitulate such bloody sectarian strife. And a vital part of their strategy was to keep government neutral in matters of religion.
And they also believed in the rights of individuals to find their own path in life, thinking it more suitable for the dignity of human beings that they be allowed to make their own mistakes than that they be compelled to hew to a path someone else had determined to be right.
The state is unique as a component of society. What makes it unique, as the political scientists have long said, is it’s “monopoly on the legitimate use of force.” Paying taxes for our public schools is not optional: our house can be forcibly taken from us if we refuse to pay our property taxes. The courthouse is not a church: we can choose not to attend a church, but if we are caught up in a legal battle there is only one courthouse, and its decisions get enforced.
Thus, keeping the state out of the business of taking sides in religious matters is vital both to maintaining social harmony and to preserving human liberty.
But there’s another basis, too, for good Christians in America today to deciding to relent in their quest to put the might of the state behind their own religious views. It runs counter to the core ethical teaching of the man they regard as Christ the Lord. Jesus taught: do unto others as you would have others do unto you. What could be clearer?
If you would not want a majority of Hindus to be able to mandate that your children would be indoctrinated with Hindu beliefs, then do not use your power, as a majority, to subject the children of Hindus (and Muslims and Buddhists and atheists and Unitarians and all the rest) to your beliefs.
As you would have others do unto you. What could be clearer?
Andrew Bard Schmookler has recently launched his website NoneSoBlind.orgdevoted to understanding the roots of Americas present moral crisis and the means by which the urgent challenge of this dangerous moment can be met. Dr. Schmookler is also the author of such books as The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution (SUNY Press) and Debating the Good Society: A Quest to Bridge Americas Moral Divide (M.I.T. Press). He also conducts regular talk-radio conversations in both red and blue states. Schmookler can be reached at email@example.com