The separation of church and state is a famous concept in American politics. Even though the phrase is not found in the Constitution, its equivalent meaning is usually derived from the First Amendment — “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” But what does it mean? What do we make of it?

Religion is often viewed as an object of personal preference on the same level as a favorite color, or candy bar; its purpose is simply the fulfillment of a perceived need — in short, it is a consumer product. For some this is true — it is a social or personal habit that provides a level of pleasure, and merely so. For others it is a fundamental belief that provides structure and significance to all other beliefs and perceptions.

Whatever meaning people may attach to the word “religion,” each of us possesses a set of fundamental, structural beliefs. When I say “religion” I refer to that set of beliefs, whether it is standardized (as in organized religion), or unique. By this understanding, naturalism is also a religion because it possesses a comprehensive framework of perception and interpretation constructed on fundamental beliefs.

One’s actual religion (whether natural or supernatural) determines the nature of every other belief, perception, and activity. As such, religion is the most fundamentally consequential aspect of human life. Every decision ever made in accordance with the decision-maker’s values. Wherever decisions are made, religion is present. Religion cannot be compartmentalized; it is impossible to divide anything —  whether culture, or government or personal life — into religious and secular dichotomies. All non-compulsory actions proceed from and are consistent with one’s fundamental set of values, however harmonious or conflicted those values may be.

The separation of church and state is often used to construct a dichotomy between religion and government, and with good reason; the combination of moral authority and physical coercion is an irresistible instrument of control. But if all decisions are made in accordance with the decision-maker’s religion — the decision-maker’s system of values  — then there really is no separation of religion and government, because there is no separation of values and decisions.

However, if separation of church and state is instead interpreted to mean a separation of organization (government organizations shall not unite with religious organizations) rather than a separation of function (government decisions shall not be made in accordance with values), a similar problem arises. The behavior of all organizations proceed from their fundamental values, either explicitly stated in a constitution or business plan, or spontaneously arising from the beliefs of those who cause the organization to function. What is a religious organization other than an entity that exercises its fundamental values?

It may seem that government is restricted to making non-fundamental decisions, but its decisions are still consistent with its fundamentals, and it will seek to defend those fundamentals, whatever they may be. In a sense, government is the most powerful religious entity of all.

While the separation of church and state may seem to be a meta-value that precedes religious decisions, remember that meta-values are religion — the fundamentals that give structure to all else. There is no separation between the religious and the secular because the secular is in itself a religious concept.

“The separation of church and state” as it is used today seems to offer a compromise between government and religion where each is promised to be undisturbed so long as it remains inside its proper sphere. But if everything is religion, if all motives and decisions are ultimately the product of fundamental values, then it is meaningless to speak of a limited sphere for religion; religion encompasses everything. The separation of church and state, as we use it today, does not referee a conflict between the religious and the secular, but between religion and religion. It referees according to one simple rule: one side is excused from being challenged by the other.

What does the separation of church and state promise the “church?” That as long as it follows the rules it will be safe. What are the rules? That it cannot be a threat, that it cannot be consequential. In short, the “church” is promised that, so long as it is careful to be irrelevant, it will be treated as such. What does the separation of church and state promise the state? That it will not be truly threatened by the “church.” It interrupts the normal conflict of beliefs and ideas by precluding meaningful scrutiny — the “church” is not allowed to challenge the state.

Any sane, informed person will observe that religion, that belief, is the origin of tumult and conflict, responsible for all the good in human history as well as all evils and abuses. The United States government systems, despite their flaws, are largely the product of excellent beliefs to which we can no longer be trusted to aspire. Why shouldn’t they be protected from ideological piracy and misuse? Why shouldn’t they be suspended safely above the mob that would almost surely corrupt them?

While the truth remains true whether or not it has been inspected, the act of conscientious scrutiny is a necessary part of adulthood. The modern understanding of the separation of church and state cheats us in two ways — on the one hand, we are prevented from meaningfully scrutinizing some of the beliefs that govern our lives; on the other, we are prevented from experiencing the full consequence of our beliefs.

A better understanding of the First Amendment is this: no belief shall be made exempt from scrutiny.

Freedom of religion, speech, press and assembly all point to the fact that all beliefs are naturally consequential. The structure of government and its relationship with religion is important, but it must arise from our own character.

The systems and laws under which we live emerged from the beliefs of the people who created them. If we are to maintain what we have been given, it should be because it emerges from our understanding and beliefs as well, not because we are forbidden from questioning them. We cannot shift responsibility away onto those who came before us, and if our beliefs are wrong, we must accept the consequences.

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