My friend brian over at saint superman has offered me a prime opportunity to once again reach across our two realms and discuss not merely the facts but some of the philosophy of politics. So sit back and relax as we wax philosophical as only college students can.

The separation of church and state is one of the tenets which lie at the heart of the modern concept of liberal democracy. After centuries of various forms of religious tyranny and warfare this was deemed the only way to allow the various religions to exist under one sociopolitical roof without vigorously attempting to disembowel one another. So far as the experiment has been ongoing here in America, it’s been fairly successful. Keeping religion out of the sphere of government without making an effort to destroy it outright appears to so far constitute the best happy middle of human governance.

This is not to say that religion has been placed on the sidelines entirely, as a mere cultural window dressing with no role left to play in human affairs. As Pope John Paul II once said “Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.” I believe that the state and religion exist in a similar duality, each having an important role but in different and distinct spheres. The state provides for the physical, material wellbeing of its citizens, setting up things like police and schools and hospitals and laws that keep people from bashing each other over the head (professional wrestling notwithstanding). Religion provides for the spiritual wellbeing of the human family, and generally give the WHY to the state’s HOW: the state tells us we shouldn’t, religion tells us specifically why from a moral/ethical standpoint we don’t just crack open each other’s skulls and feast on the goo inside. This is one reason that, while being an agnostic myself, I don’t by into the efforts of people like Dawkins who insist that religion must not merely be abandoned, but actively destroyed. But that’s a whole other post in and of itself.

The main problem arises when the two spheres intersect. Is marriage a purely religious institution or should the state promote it? If so, should the state take steps to prevent gays from accessing this institution? Is abortion a moral wrong, and if so to what extent should the state move to punish it? To what extent should evolution and “intelligent design” be forced to sit down together and play nice? It’s in these and other areas where the distinction between the spiritual and temporal realms blurs that even our much ballyhooed happy compromise begins to break down, as evidenced by the almost tribal animosity these issues generated. Of course the situation isn’t helped when parties within the state manipulate these divisions for their own electoral gain, but the essential problem remains nonetheless. So far we’ve chugged along with solutions legitimized by various referenda, but some of these issues are so fundamental to questions of human rights that the losing side, be it in a state banning gay marriage or legalizing abortion, feels the sting of the tyranny of the majority, and rightly so. But how do we solve such a fundamental problem? Unfortunately it’s here that our ability to reason a solution gives out, at least for now. In the near term, the debate itself will have to suffice, in hopes that one of the questions engendered therein will lead us to a more correct answer. For while the separation itself may be sound, like so many other aspects of american political life it remains a work in progress.

And yet eventually society will need to develop a cultural consensus on these issues, simply in order to function. Culture is one of the things that binds a nation, that makes it a nation, and this is especially true in America, built on a patchwork of various viewpoints and ideologies. Points of consensus are necessary simply to prevent, or at least reduce to benign levels, the kind of ideological factionalism that has been the doom of so many other countries. These things will simply need to be handled on a case by case basis. Of course, the benefit of the American system is that, having accepted the will of the people as the ultimate source of legitimate authority, we can decide these things on the same basis. The problem there is that on this basis alone the results can be taken as simply the tyranny of the majority. Historically, it is at these sort of impasses that state has stepped in in order to secure the rights of the minority, for example in the civil rights movement. When the state acts in such a way as to defend and expand the rights of its people, the short term objections are typically smoothed out as the culture assimilates the inherent justice of such a move. I’m confident that, given the restraints imposed by the framework of the constitution, and the ever-underlying threat of the social contract, an equitable solution will eventually be found, though it’s shape is currently unknown to us.

-We’re all in this Together