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Donald Morrison: Keeping church and state apart

Clergy Abuse-New Orleans

Columnist Don Morrison is a confirmed Catholic, but the news from a Catholic-leaning Supreme Court this week troubled him. As the debate over the separation of church and state rages across the country, Morrison has a simple message: Knock it off, fellow Christians. 

When I was 13, I faced a dilemma of world-historical proportions.

I was about to be confirmed as a full-fledged member of the Roman Catholic faith, a big deal back then for an altar boy like me. But first, I had to pick an appropriate confirmation name, i.e., the name of a saint who had helped inspire me to piety.

My first choice was a 5th century North African bishop, intellectual and true man of the world. He once said, to my delight: “Oh Lord, help me be pure, but not yet.” The other strike against him was having asserted, in his masterful treatise, “The City of God,” that religion should be kept out of politics. The nuns at my school kindly advised me to find a saint who was more…conventional.

Augustine popped into my thoughts the other day when the U.S. Supreme Court ended the right to have an abortion, thereby enshrining Catholic doctrine in constitutional law.

Around the same time, the justices also ordered the state of Maine to include religious schools in a tax-supported subsidy program. A few days later it OK’d letting teachers in public schools lead students in prayer. In his concurring abortion-case opinion, Catholic Justice Clarence Thomas said the court should outlaw three other Christian bugbears: contraception, gay relationships and same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile, conservative groups are fighting to give Christianity a privileged place in American life — and denouncing almost any attempt to enforce Jeffersonian secularism as, ironically, an attack on religious freedom. Colorado Republican Senator Lauren Boebert declared the other day that she was “tired” of keeping religion out of politics. She added: “The church is supposed to direct the government.”

My favorite saint must be rolling in his crypt. Church-state separation is an idea at least as old as Augustine. The Middle Ages, widely considered to be an era when religion dominated everything, was in fact littered with wars between popes and kings trying to keep each other off their turf.

The modern notion of church-state separation is essentially an American achievement. Rhode Island’s Roger Williams wrote about the “liberty of conscience” in 1632, inspiring British philosopher John Locke and French Enlightenment thinkers to elevate the idea to a natural right.

That notion motivated America’s Founding Fathers to erect what Thomas Jefferson called “a wall of separation between Church and State.” That phrase doesn’t appear in the Constitution, but the First Amendment prevents the establishment of a state religion and the elevation of one faith over another. The Founders saw how theocracies and official religions can trample individual rights, and they didn’t want that happening here.

Well, it is. Evangelical Christians have allied with conservative politicians to enact a mutual wish list. Besides the Supreme Court’s recent gifts, it includes pushing school choice and home schooling to undermine the public education system, promoting gun ownership as a quasi-religious act, punishing gays, censoring what teachers can teach, banning books, discrediting science and even officially declaring America a Christian country. Also, of course, keeping conservatives in power.

If such attacks on church-state separation continue, America may not necessarily become a Christian country, but it sure will be a divided one. The resulting wars of religion could drag us back into the Middle Ages.

On the eve of my confirmation, I found a back-up saint: Dominic Savio, an obscure 19th century Italian who died of illness at age 14. As the bishop anointed me with holy oil at the ceremony, he stumbled over the boy’s name.

I don’t remember why I chose Dominic. Maybe it’s because he is known for an act not directly connected with religion: he stopped an intra-school gang battle. Standing between the two factions, he insisted they throw the first rocks at him. The gangbangers went home in peace.

So here goes: Knock it off, fellow Christians. We’ve had religious freedom in this country for nearly 250 years without becoming a theocracy or inscribing a particular faith’s agenda in the statute books. You want a religious war? OK, then. Cast the first stone at me.

I’m not afraid. The public is on my side — according to polls about abortion rights, minority rights, school prayer, taxing churches that dabble in politics and pretty much every other controversy involving religion.

Besides, I have a saint in my corner. Two of them, in fact.

Donald Morrison is an Eagle columnist and co-chairman of the advisory board. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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