Church and State in America

Is the United States a Christian nation or a nation of religious freedom and tolerance? Are we implicitly the United Christian States of America in the same way as the Islamic Republic of Iran? Some Christians seem to think so and have been conducting an unrelenting campaign to make it so.

Consider the not so very subtle comments by the not so subtle Paul Harvey: “Life, liberty or your pursuit of happiness will not be endangered because someone says a 30-second prayer before a football game…. But it’s a Christian prayer, some will argue…. If I went to a football game in Jerusalem, I would expect to hear a Jewish prayer. If I went to a soccer game in Baghdad, I would expect to hear a Muslim prayer…. And I wouldn’t be offended.  It wouldn’t bother me one bit.
When in Rome…..” In short, Mr. Harvey wants us to believe that we are a Christian nation rather than a nation with a majority of Christians and are thus justified in incorporating Christianity into our official public acts. But Israel was explicitly established as a religious state and look at the trouble that has caused them and the rest of the world. And though I have not attended a soccer game in Baghdad, I doubt that I would hear a Muslim prayer at one, though prayer rooms are set aside in most buildings for those who wish to pray when called. America has made a different choice. Our constitution tries to protect us from our government and from each other by limiting what our government can do and what a majority of citizens may decide. The separation of church and state is an instrument of that protection.

The prohibition against discrimination in law and public matters on the basis of sex and race is another such protection (after the 14th amendment). Discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation has not explicitly achieved that status but social attitudes have moved a long way in that direction. I found it interesting that in the Vice Presidential debate, where both candidates expressed the same views against “gay marriage”, Sarah Palin stated that she accepted the right of people to choose their sexual orientation. This is a significant advance over anti gay views widely held a generation or two ago but unfortunately still reflects the mistaken view that we can chose to be gay or straight. According to the Anchorage Daily News of Aug 6, 2006, “Palin… said she doesn’t know if people choose to be gay.” Too bad, she should know better.

The narrow adoption of Proposition 8 in California to eliminate the right of same–sex couples to marry provides an example of the mixing of church and state that might not have occurred to you. The problem arises (aside from ignorance and bigotry) because the set of legal rights and obligations bestowed by the state in “civil unions” goes by the same name, “marriage,” as the status bestowed by religious groups. The Catholic, Baptist, Episcopal, Sunni, Buddhist, etc. churches (even the Mormon Church) should be free to define marriage, and who they wish to marry, in whatever manner they think appropriate. At least that is the American perspective. But the state must abide by the words and spirit of its constitution. It may not (or at least should not) discriminate against gay and lesbian couples in granting the marriage contract. And we seem on our way to getting there. What stands in the way is mixing the roles of church and state. Let’s keep them separate as provided in our constitution, not withstanding that the majority of our citizens are Christians of one sort or another.

Author: Warren Coats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My recent books are One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina; My Travels in the Former Soviet Union; My Travels to Afghanistan; My Travels to Jerusalem; and My Travels to Baghdad. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.

3 thoughts on “Church and State in America”

  1. My dear Warren,
     I agree with you in the separation of Church and State. As a devout Christian, I reject these “born again” evangelists for hijacking Christianity and making it into a pressure group subservient to the zionist agenda. I do not go to church nor follow any man in my relationship with my Lord and Saviour. I consider myself a devout Christian,  and most probable a better at it than ninety nine percent of these hate mongers that call themselves Evangelicals. Yet, I fall short, very short, of what Jesus expects from me. It is by grace we are saved, not by merits! No real Christian, that is, anyone who has the Holy Spirit in him,  would  lambast and alienate others because of their sexual orientation. The hatred and vindictiveness of these right wingers is reminiscent of Nazi  anti jewish propaganda.
    I pray to the Lord to forgive my many sins, to make me a better person; I  pray for all my friends, you included, so that one day the Lord will touch their  lives  and that we may share eternity together. I strive for love, compassion, tolerance, forgiveness  towards my fellow humans, not hatred, intolerance, vindictiveness and bigotry. This is found nowhere in the Bible that Ive  studied for over thirty years!
    These people are not good people, Warren. They DO NOT represent Jesus nor His teachings. They have perverted His teachings and the Bible as a whole in order to fulfill political agendas. We are taught that we are NOT of this world and  are  NOT to participate in politics.  These pseudo Christian evangelicals of today are precisely the saducees and farisees of yesteryear!  With their manipulated Biblical teachings, taking verses  out of context and twisting Christ’s teachings to further their goals, they have managed to alienate so many people, among them gays, liberals, and anyone who loves human beings for their natural qualities. They are what the Bible calls the last day false profets! There is no Hell bad enough to compensate for the  suffering and heartache they have inflicted on  so many! 
    Dont despair my friend, they have no moral quality to judge others, and if they do, in that same measure they will be judged and will pay exponentially. If there is a book tha I more or less know, it is the Bible. Rest assured that  they are not Christians at all!
    Warmest regards,

  2. Nice post Warren.I completely agree as long as one side is using the word "marriage" in a cultural/religious sense (Yes on Prop 8) and the other side uses it in a "legal contract" sense (No on Prop 8), we will continue to face major problems in fighting discrimination. Another complication however, on the No on Prop 8 side, is that many people feel like accepting anything less than use of the term "marriage," as opposed to "civil unions" or "domestic partnership" will be second class.  I would argue that it is not, and getting hung up on hetero-normative semantics has been a great hindrance to the achieving equality.-Ray

  3. Added for Don Devine, Second Vice Chairman of the American Conservative Union and Editor of its "Conservative Battleline"Proposition 8, of
    course, left gay civil unions fully intact. Being a true libertarian, I see the
    problem as the state taking over a function and brand-name owned by the church.
    It was the state – primarily with the rise of divine-right kingship that
    overthrew the medieval order and then the French Revolution – that did not
    respect separation of church and state on the matter of marriage. As far as a
    football game, if it is played on private property as it should if the
    government had not taken over the education and sports-stadium businesses, what
    is wrong with a Christian prayer? The creation of marriage for one man and woman
    and civil unions for the rest is one of those messy compromises that necessarily
    take place when the state usurps what should be private social rather than
    government political matters. If one insists on government (whether legislature
    or court) performing the function, the majority sentiment (whether a democracy
    or not) will rule and that includes its religion. As Hayek made so clear,
    equality before the law cannot work if government does everything because people
    are not equal on everything.

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