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Last week I went with a Pagan friend to the Marin Interfaith Council’s meeting, to hear Barbara McGraw give a talk on church and state in America. McGraw is author of Rediscovering America’s Sacred Ground, a very good discussion of how our Founders anticipated relations should be between church and state. California’s spiritual diversity was well represented by the people who turned out to hear her. Along with Pagans, at least the Catholic, Presbyterian, Jewish, Bahai. Episcopal, Zen Buddhist, Brahama Kumari, Taoist, Unitarian, UCC, and Sufi traditions were all represented.
In a lively talk McGraw explained that neither the religious right nor the secular left really understands the Founders’ thinking on church and state. Secularists argue religion should be purely private, the right that we are a Christian country. This is why both sides throw quotations around so freely, quotations that seem to contradict one another. They ignore the context of the quotations they sling about. As she put it, both sides “are half right and half wrong.”
From John Locke, through the Founders, the view was that God communicated in many ways. God’s relationship with people could be through conscience, revelation, nature, and reason. Freedom of conscience was vital, because only with it could people be free to enter into the relationship with God in a way that seemed good to them. Locke explicitly included Jews, Muslims, Indians, and Pagans. He was echoed by our Founders, who went beyond Locke to also include atheists, who could listen to their conscience.
In contrast to the ‘Christian’ Right, and most practices before our founding, God’s inspiration and guidance was seen as coming from the ground up, not from the top down. This was why John Adams could write our constitution was made for a moral or religious people, and James Madison emphasized the need for “virtue.” Freedom was not for private happiness primarily, it was for seeking the happiness of everyone.
Freedom of religion was not intended to make religion private, but rather to enable Americans to enter into “a great conversation” about the good society. Religion was intended to inform and motivate our actions because only through inputs by all people of good conscience could a self-governing society be a good society. The Civil Rights movement, with its serious involvement by many denominations, would be an example of the Founder’s hopes showing life.
From the Founders’ point of view, the growing religious pluralism in American society would be a good thing, enlarging the perspective that could contribute to a good society. Madison made it explicit, pointing out that when there was great diversity, on balance agreement could be reached among people mostly on measures that would benefit the community as a whole, because no single group, be it religious or otherwise, would be able to have its way while sacrificing the well-being of others.