Separation of church and state is simpler than we think

If ever a country needed such a visit as the pope's, this is it.

After getting blindsided and then ensnared in America’s own very peculiar “religious war,” do you think the pope has any regrets about his decision to visit Washington D.C., Philadelphia and New York?

Of course, that question is facetious. If ever a country needed such a visit, though, this is it.

For while it seems particularly fashionable today for many to proclaim their religiosity as ostentatiously as possible, words and deeds increasingly seem to be strangers to one another in our public spheres.

Simply put, the unremitting (ab)use of religion in our political discourse as a putative trump card (no pun intended) — to try to squelch discussion and confirm the supposed righteousness of a cause, act or position — has got to stop.

An anathema to our Constitution and to a fundamental reason for our coming into being as a nation, it is this and the constant attempts to conjure some manner of state religion into our secular lives as citizens that have to be resisted if our liberties are to be preserved.

This effort has become so toxic that some thought nothing of casually drawing an unwitting Pope Francis into appearing to take sides in the controversy surrounding a county clerk named Kim Davis.

In that case, what is wholly a legal and political dispute has been cynically conflated into a false issue of religious freedom.

Only obtuseness confuses the formal act of a civil authority confirming the legal rights within a human relationship with a church perfectly free to confer or deny a spiritual blessing on that human relationship. Only myopic self-righteousness can try to make the act of denying legal rights to another a laudable exercise of religious liberty.

For we Americans, sadly, this is nothing new.

But for such a prominent guest to our country to be treated as a mere prop in a contrived morality play? Things clearly have gotten out of hand.

Even politicians in their speeches and news conferences today feel compelled to routinely give quasi-religious benedictions. (If they don’t, there’s usually hell to pay. And yes, that pun is fully intended.) This is something that prior generations would have seen as presumptuously inappropriate and a role more properly reserved for those rightfully ordained.

Historically, freedom of thought and conviction — religious freedom if you prefer — did not arrive with all of the early settlers to this country.

Some sects, like the Puritans, were as intolerant of others’ beliefs as the Church of England they were fleeing. Moreover, several colonies were first established as havens for particular denominations. Maryland, for instance, initially was a refuge for Roman Catholics.

With time, the influence of tolerant groups like the Quakers in Pennsylvania and the searing experience of the carnage wrought by centuries of the real religious wars in Europe, prompted the Founders to conclude that only strict separation between church and state could guarantee freedom of conscience and belief for all.

Furthermore, the Founders were rational thinkers, whose core beliefs were firmly anchored in the Enlightenment, a truly broad revolutionary movement that advocated individual liberty, religious tolerance and the use of reason and scientific inquiry in opposition to the tyranny of divine-right absolute monarchs and fixed religious dogmas.

Seen in that light, politicizing religion — far from being a manifestation of religious liberty, as is being argued in some quarters — might be among the most threatening acts against the Constitution.

Not unlike the motivation behind the ruse perpetrated on Pope Francis, the constant claim that religious liberty is threatened is merely a tactic aimed at manipulating opinion and the political system.

The ubiquitous public manifestations of religion in American life — not to mention the deference, legal exemptions and privileges accorded religious institutions by every state and the federal government — prove the ridiculousness of such claims.

It’s how a perfectly friendly “Happy Holidays” becomes construed as a negative act instead of a positive gesture toward a stranger in a festive season celebrating, at the very least, human kindness. Does it have to be that convoluted?

Contrast that contrived complexity with the direct simplicity of the message that the pope — a man leading an institution with rules, complexities and litmus tests to spare — sought to impart: “Love one another.”

Its simplicity belies efforts to clutter it up with qualifications and tests of worthiness. There is no “if,” “unless” or “as long as” attached to it.

This seems to be the essence of what Pope Francis meant when he said, “Who am I to judge?”

Find ways to be inclusive, not excluding. Undoubtedly this is what he wanted his trip here to be about.

Did we miss it?

John Figliozzi of Halfmoon is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section

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