One man may look down at an object from above and declare that it is a circle. Another man, standing on the ground directly in front of the object will say with equal certainty that it is a square. They may then convert many followers to their philosophies, with the man on the ground showing clearly that the object has four obvious corners, and the man up above showing with impeccable logic that it is as circular as the sun. It will be an interesting day when they discover that they were both right, and both wrong, because the object they were describing was actually an upright cylinder.
We are all limited in our vision, and so the perspective of our neighbor almost always contains hints of truth, even if he sees only “squareness” where we see only “roundness.”
Judging from the perpetual debate on the “separation between church and state,” this problem of “incomplete visions” is not exclusive to my preachy and presumptuous column parables.
In this debate, like the one in the illustration, “team roundness” claims America was founded on Christianity, was intended to operate within Christian parameters, and should protect the particular precepts of that faith from secular violence. Prayer should occur in public schools — although it is assumed that this will be only Christian prayer.
On the other hand, “team squareness” holds the Founding Fathers quite intentionally placed a wall of separation between church and state.
This was to keep faith out of government affairs, or at least off of government property (you can recognize this team by their obsession with the word “impose”).
Now, if you want to know how to operate a piece of technology, you will save yourself much frustration by simply asking the engineer for the instructions. If you want to find a location on a map, your life will be much easier if you just ask the mapmaker for directions.
So, what did the authors of our government have to say? George Washington spoke freely about his belief that morality was vital for our nation; he also claimed that it was unwise to think that morality could exist apart from religion. John Adams even made this truly exclusive remark: “the Constitution of the United States was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Jefferson even bragged about how his local courthouse was used, on an alternating basis, as a church by several different sects. Perhaps “team roundness” has it right.
But wait … we then see that, in 1979, the senate unanimously—yes, unanimously— ratified a bill stating that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” Plus, every historian knows that deism was all the rage during the time of the founding. Paine and Jefferson liked it. Many of those early patriots were deists, or at least deistic. This means that they were certainly not “Christian” in the modern sense. Maybe “team squareness” has some ground to stand on?
The truth is that the Founding Fathers were the first to realize faith operates as a social paradox. When the Romans tried to kill Christianity with the government, they themselves died and Christianity took root. When Europe later tried the opposite, forming the Christian-state, it was the Church that deteriorated. It seems therefore that faith can only influence government by transcending it, not by infiltrating it; and the State, for its part, cannot influence faith at all.
Tocqueville, with his usual insight, sheds light on the truth.
When he visited America in 1831 and asked the pastors and priests of the land how religion managed to have so much influence on the government, the clergy answered unanimously: “the separation of church and state.” They saw what we, for some reason, can't. They saw that the only way to have a nation governed by faith was to keep the government out of the faith. The Founding Fathers, seeing religion as vital to their new nation, created the “wall” in order to let religion thrive —not to contain it or disenfranchise it.
Tocqueville observed a great and subtle truth: if you want to increase religion's real power, the answer is not in its legal power. The power of something eternal can only be killed by intertwining it with the most temporal of all institutions: human government.
Does this not echo St. Paul, who said God's power “is made perfect in weakness?” Team “roundness” was right: the Founders loved Faith. “Secular” cannot truly be used to describe their philosophy. However, team “squareness” is also right: they were not working on specifically Christian principles, and in their wisdom, they did erect the wall of separation. In the end, the laws of a democracy are a mirror of its people. If the laws are increasingly hostile to faith, it can only mean that the people have become so. No legislative victory will change a national spiritual failure. Lack of Christian legislation reveals a failure of evangelization more than a failure of Constitutional interpretation. And since the failure is one of faith, then the task before Christians is an evangelical one long before it is a legal one. Our democratic government is only doing what it is supposed to do—it is mirroring the people. As with any other mirror, if you don't like the reflection, it isn't the mirror that needs changing. Point your finger at it, and it only points back — and its gesture is the truer one.
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