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Church, State and the Golden Rule

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert A. Hunter
July 25, 2021

Could the golden rule be the common denominator among those who believe the United States was founded as a Christian nation and those who believe in strict separation of church and state?

Let’s see.

Few issues today create more controversial discussion than the issue of America’s religious roots and the Founders’ intent.

Dr. Christine Leigh Heyrman, of the University of Delaware, tells us that on one side are those who contend that the Founding Fathers did not intend for an impregnable wall between church and state nor to prevent federal support for religious institutions, but only to prevent government from favoring one Christian denomination over another.

On another side, Dr. Heyrman notes, those who believe the Founders favored a more rigorous separation of church and state conclude that the Fathers wanted a wall high enough to protect individual liberty of conscience and to prohibit both religious establishments and federal support for any denomination, but low enough to allow for the expression of religious sentiments and values within the public square.

Truly, religion was a hot topic in early America. Discussions among national leaders involved the exclusion or inclusion of various Christian denominations as well as exclusion of non-Christians.

In Virginia, Patrick Henry proposed a tax on all citizens to support Christianity as the established religion of that colony. James Madison responded, “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?”

Thomas Jefferson opined, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as they are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence include the word, “Creator,” and the Articles of Confederation refer to the, “Great Governor of the World,” but the word “God” is not found in the Constitution of the United States.

There were compromises, but providential themes clearly were extant in the Constitutional Convention.

Upon the urging of Benjamin Franklin halfway through the three months of deliberation, the practice of prayer was instituted, and to this day, prayers are spoken daily in the halls of the United States Capitol by congressional chaplains. These are nondenominational prayers, however.

There can exist a belief in religious principles—even a belief that Christian principles are at the

foundation of our Constitution—without the need to describe ourselves as a Christian ntion. In

very fact, the Constitution clearly prohibits the establishment of religion and guarantees the free exercise of religion.

Although 70% of Americans identify as Christian, that does not make us a Christian nation. We are a nation with a majority of Christians, but we are a nation that guarantees freedom of religion for all.

Perhaps our common ground can be found in the words of Dr. Thom Kuehls, Chair of Political Science and Philosophy at Weber State University. In his text for students of political science, he writes of natural law, that it, “Is not human created, but is found out through the use of human reason, and it applies to all humans for all times.”

Dr. Kuehls reports that the theory of natural law forbids us from interfering with the natural rights (life, liberty and property) of others.

This declaration leads us to seek an understanding of how religions of the world view this concept of natural law.

The Pew Research Center reports that, of the 7.3 billion people in the world, 2.3 billion are Christians, 1.8 billion are Muslims, 1.2 billion are unaffiliated (including agnostics and atheists),

1.1 billion are Hindus, 500 million are Buddhists, 500 million are other religions, and 15 million are Jews. These are the major categories.

In almost every one of the world’s 4,300 religions, in some form or another, the golden rule is listed as a major pillar: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Is not the natural law an expression of the golden rule?

Is not the golden rule an expression of the natural law?

Do not the Christian America believers and the church/state separatists also subscribe to the golden rule?

Doesn’t it stand to reason, then, that the Founding Fathers’ intent was to construct a government that would nourish and support the golden rule?

This being so, let us focus less on futile arguments about what was in the minds of the Founders and more on use of the golden rule as a guiding principle in all that we do—the way we treat our employees, the way we treat our constituents, the way we treat our colleagues, the way we treat our political opponents, the way we treat our friends and neighbors and the example we set for those around us.

It’s a powerful concept.


Author: Robert Hunter is a longtime leader in Utah’s political and nonprofit circles, who also teaches Leadership and Political Life at Weber State University. He currently serves as public policy advisor to United Way of Northern Utah.

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