Degree of Separation

Polls repeatedly show that America remains a very spiritual place. But how do we embrace our own religious nature while still keeping religion separate from government? Sockdolager doesn’t pretend to have an answer, but we have been thinking about what the recent
dust-ups over religious expression say about church and state and their current ...
Friday, April 16, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:27 p.m. CDT, Sunday, June 29, 2008


Beware of religion creep

In the past six months, a number of incidents have raised questions regarding religion’s proper role in public life. Last September, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore was forced to remove a 2.6-ton granite monument of the Ten Commandments from the state building because a federal district judge said it violated the U.S. Constitution’s principle of separation of religion and government. In March, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case brought by a lawyer objecting to the inclusion of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Closer to home, Missouri House Bill 911, introduced this year, would mandate equal treatment for intelligent design alongside biological evolution in public elementary and secondary schools. Missouri is also one of 11 states that prohibits state money from being given to college students pursuing theology or divinity degrees.

There are two ways to view these events. Either religion is creeping into places it shouldn’t be, or we have gone overboard in our efforts to keep God under wraps. The beauty of America is that these issues are actually being debated. Religion and religious symbols mean different things to different people. In America, we take into consideration these different viewpoints, whether they represent 1 or 20 percent of the population.

Sockdolager is wary of any attempts to increase the role of religion in government. Spirituality in all its forms is alive and well in America, largely because it is kept distinctly separate from the day-to-day goings-on of our government. And while some of these attempts at religious expression may seem minor to those who believe in God, it is a slippery slope. After all, what we all have in common is not a belief in the same God. It’s a belief in the Constitution, and any attempt to say otherwise, should be staunchly opposed.

The Alabama government is not going to hell because a statue was removed from the capital. If “under God” is removed from the Pledge of Allegiance, it won’t dilute what the pledge actually stands for. And teaching evolution to our kids is not an attempt to brainwash them all into being atheists. America has always liked symbols. But there’s a danger in liking symbols too much — you lose sight of what they represent.

What candidates believe

Separation of church and state is one of the defining characteristics of American government. But when it comes to actually electing public officials, the line between the two begins to blur.

Just look at our last couple of presidential elections. While campaigning for president in 2000, George W. Bush announced that Jesus Christ was his personal hero. More recently, Democrat Howard Dean made a comical attempt to appear more religious before venturing south to compete in the South Carolina primary. This led to Dean’s saying that his favorite book from the New Testament is Job. And just last week, Catholic Church leaders were wringing their hands over how to deal with Democrat John Kerry, who, despite being a practicing Catholic, is both pro-choice and in favor of stem-cell research.

Such spiritual litmus tests don’t just apply to presidential candidates. Seven states — not including Missouri — have language in their Bill of Rights that says those holding office must acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being in some form or another. Such wording leaves open the door for uppity atheists to identify themselves or some other mortal as their Supreme Being, but the message is clear: Get in touch with your spiritual side or don’t expect to get elected.

Arguably our most religious public servant today is the country’s highest law enforcement official: Attorney General John Ashcroft. A born-again Christian who loves “The Simpsons,” Ashcroft often holds prayer meetings in his office at the beginning of the day. Ashcroft has several times stated that his being appointed attorney general after losing the 2000 Missouri Senate race to a dead man was part of God’s plan. Those who don’t believe in God find such statements frightening. Others believe this interpretation is completely natural.

For good or bad, you’re much more likely to be ostracized in the political arena for being godless than for being extremely religious. Part of this is political reality — agnostics or atheists aren’t exactly a group of voters that candidates feel the need to actively woo during a campaign. But is this focus on the religious beliefs of our potential leaders good for the country?

Asking a candidate about his or her faith seems like fair game to us. After all, a person’s faith or lack of faith in a Supreme Being can say a lot about where he or she comes from and how he or she arrives at policy decisions. But interest in a candidate’s religion has its limits. If there’s only one right answer to the question of faith, fixating on religion seems unhealthy. It encourages intolerance and causes people to wonder, rightly or wrongly, whether they really are free to believe whatever they want.

More importantly, people can take many different roads to arrive at the same position. Judging candidates solely by their religious beliefs ignores this fact. Take Ashcroft. No doubt Sockdolager has followed a very different life path from that of our attorney general. And yet we’ve both managed to develop a deep affection for “The Simpsons.” Woohoo!

Sockdolager believes separating church and state, instead of weakening religion, makes it stronger than ever.

Send your comments on church and state to the Missourian or e-mail us at

Sockdolager Staff

David Bracken, Josh Eiserike, Reed Fischer, Tom Porto, Xinning Huang

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