I was thinking again about the sermonic peroration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s UN speech during a run yesterday morning on one of Chapel Hill’s lovely trails. Realizing it was October 1st, the day on which it was sent in 1801, the letter from a newly elected Thomas Jefferson addressed to the Danbury Baptists came to mind. Jefferson’s words have had a profound impact on our country, standing as the definitive interpretation of the First Amendment. “Believing with you that religion is a matter that lies solely between man and his God,” Jefferson wrote, “that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.” With these two things in mind, I was struck by our own and the Iranian President's similarities. To be sure George W. Bush’s words are tempered by Jefferson’s admonition, but he, like Ahmadinejad, sees his mission coming from God. While I disagree with both of them on this account, I don’t doubt that either man's belief is heartfelt. They truly feel they are carrying out God’s will, but which God is that? And that’s the very question implicit in crafting the Constitution’s insightful line of demarkation, so clearly articulated by our third Chief Executive.
This similarity in outlook, while surely different in ideological content, is characteristic of a world in which it can be argued that religion too often manifests itself as part of the problem and not of the solution. Going into battle with “God’s blessing”, which clearly is nothing new, virtually mandates a conflict of absolutes and is the inevitable mother of the intractable. If you really believe that you’re executing God’s will, the perfect and infallible God, then there can be no room for compromise. It’s a matter of right and wrong. You or I may have a personal or even collective point of view on this subject or that, but so long as we see ourselves as its source, we are amenable to change. We may not like giving in or worse being bested in argument by others, but the stakes remain relatively low. All that changes with God in the mix, because while we are fallible, God is not, certainly not if he is God. So giving ground means questioning not merely the Ultimate but one’s own faith. That can’t happen. It is for precisely that reason that mixing religion and affairs of state is so poisonous and why, however ironic, it makes peacemaking virtually, if not totally, impossible.
What we need today are not sermons at the United Nations or invocations of God’s blessing on our actions, but a forceful letter the world’s “Baptists”. That may be a quixotic idea, but I really think that much more important than fighting some mythical “War on Terrorism”, we should be focused on removing religion from our conflicts on all sides. That may not be as unrealistic as it sounds because this imputed religious content is essentially born our of human manipulation, the selective reading of one scripture or another to meet purely self-serving human objectives – as true for Bush as it is for Ahmadinejad. We’re in Iraq for many reasons, most (and probably all) of them wrong, but the one thing I’m confident didn’t bring us to Baghdad was God. No I don’t presume to know God’s will better than George Bush does, I simply know that, (assuming God exists), neither of us is in a position to really know it. The same can be said about a Jihad whether declared by Osama bin Laden or anyone else. All of these are smokescreens purposefully raised by powerful humans because the reputed work of God brooks no questioning.
If the world is to have any hope for peace, we must collectively erect a wall of separation between our individual religious beliefs and how we interact with one another. Erecting such a wall suggests no lessening of religion itself or of fervent religious belief; it simply puts religion where it belongs as Jefferson said, something “solely between man and his God”. His (or her, Mr. Jefferson) God is not necessarily your God or mine, which is the point. Conflict is between people, and to the best of our knowledge, God has nothing to do with it unless the all-knowing is in the habit of regularly changing sides. Does God (assuming he’s on our side) support Saddam and the Taliban one day and oppose them the next? Perhaps this separation will (or can) never happen, but think about its implications for a moment and you’ll come to realize that it may well be the last real hope for humankind. When Gandhi led the fight against the British his greatest disappointment was the resulting split of the sub-continent along religious lines, leading to a volatile divisiveness that remains until this day. Much of the intractable dispute between Israel and the Palestinians is equally informed by religiously based “territorial rights”. None of these serve peace; all bode ill for the future.
Perhaps a letter to the world’s “Baptists” is an unlikely dream. I fear that to be the case since too many people are vested in the conflicts that use religion as their rallying flag. But looking at the result, perhaps, as our own Supreme Court embarks upon another term exactly 206 years later to the day, we would all do well to pull out Jefferson’s letter. The separation of Church and State has been under systematic attack since religious fundamentalists began to influence not merely Republican politics but the country’s conversation. In pleading for separation, many liberals and even a good number of conservatives, hold fast to the Jeffersonian ideas principally to protect specifics like a woman’s right of reproductive choice or keeping “Intelligent Design” out of the public schools. I agree with them, vigorously so. But there is something much more ominous at stake. When religion and governance mix, violent conflict seems to follow. That could be the greatest threat to homeland security. I truly believe that the tranquility of the nation hangs in the balance when we tinker with this basic First Amendment principle. The record is clear in that regard. It would be good to send a letter to the world’s “Baptists”, but at the very least we should urgently send one to ourselves.