Religion and State

Roger Cohen was born in 1955 in London and raised with a European perspective. He can perhaps be forgiven for his profound ignorance and condescending arrogance with regard the relationship between religion and the state in the United States. In his article, “Secular Europe’s Merits,’‘ Cohen criticized Presidential candidate’s Mitt Romney sad allusion to the fact the grand cathedrals in Europe are largely empty because Europeans are too “enlightened” to go and actually fill those cathedrals. Cohen sarcastically remarks that, “Europeans still take the Enlightenment seriously enough not to put it inside quote marks.”

Here, Cohen reveals his fundamental misunderstanding. Romney placed “Enlightenment” in quotation remarks not because he disparages the authority of reason, but because too many in Europe, unlike our American Founders, have embraced the notion that reason and faith are incompatible. There is no logical reason why Europe cannot be both enlightened and have churches brimming with people. Is Cohen arguing that those who attend Church are, by definition, unenlightened?

Like many in Europe, he enjoys the blood sport of pulling President George Bush’s comments out of context to make him appear to be a religious zealot devoted to making the US a theocracy. For example, Cohen ridicules Bush’s “allusions to divine guidance — `the hand of a just and faithful God.'” The implication is that Bush feels himself as acting implicit direction of such a God.

It is kinder to assume that Cohen pulled this quotation from some blog without the knowledge of its full context than that he deliberately misquoted Bush. The phrase Cohen cites came from an annual prayer breakfast. In a full context, Bush was arguing the exact opposite of Cohen’s assertion that Bush was claiming some special knowledge of God’s will. Bush was saying that sometimes we don’t understand how God works in this world. Nonetheless, we have faith in the notion that God’s purposes will still be served.

“We can also be confident in the ways of Providence, even when they are far from our understanding. Events aren’t moved by blind change and chance. Behind all of life and all of history, there’s a dedication and purpose, set by the hand of a just and faithful God. And that hope will never be shaken.” [Emphasis added-FMM]

This is not much different in sentiment from Abraham Lincoln’s observation in his Second Inaugural Address that the Civil War was perhaps God’s way of eliminating the scourge of slavery.

“The Almighty has His own purposes. `Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time…”

And Bush remarks were certainly less suggestive of a theocracy than Presidential candidate Barak Obama’s request to be an “instrument of God” to create “a Kingdom right here on Earth.” In the immediately preceding column, Cohen was rather complimentary of “Obama’s American Ideals.” One suspects that if a Republican had made the exact same remarks about bringing a Kingdom here on Earth, Cohen would have led the legions defending the secular state against the agents of theocracy.

It is possible to both moral and secular. However, our forefathers made the observation that a free society cannot long exist without being a moral society and that religion has proven to be a key agent of morality. George Washington Farewell Address:

“And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

The First Amendment’s protections of religious freedom were designed as least much to protect religion from the state as the state from religion.

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