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John Colson: Hit and Run

John Colson
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

With all the talk about religion in the current U.S. presidential race, you’d think the Founding Fathers never established the entirely sensible and cautionary principle of the separation of church and state.

Former Senator Rick Santorum, for example, went from nowhere in the polls to being tied with Mitt Romney in the Republican primary race, based largely on his bombastic condemnation of President Obama’s religious credentials as opposed to Santorum’s supposed adherence to his own faith-based ideas.

And empty-headed bishops have played right into Santorum’s game plan by bashing Obama’s directive to require such institutions as hospitals, even if they are nominally attached to a religious hierarchy, to provide birth control to women in their employ.

What should have been a tempest in a teapot swiftly became a national finger-pointing exercise that did none of us any good.

The American application of the “separation” principle, I should note, is credited to two mighty luminaries of our political pantheon, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.

It was Madison who pointed out in 1821 that 16th century theologian Martin Luther’s “doctrine of the two kingdoms” – the earthly kingdom and the heavenly one, which Luther saw as two distinct influences in the affairs of men – shaped the earliest thinking about the separation of church and state.

Earlier, in 1802, in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, Jefferson came up with a phrase, the “wall of separation between church and state,” as a logical extension of the First Amendment declaration that Congress “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The way Jefferson saw it, “no law” meant that government should not be involved in religious matters, and that religion should stay out of governmental matters. Because once either entity starts throwing its weight around with regard to the other entity, we’re all in big trouble.

I wholeheartedly agree.

In fact, I subscribe to Mark Twain’s views on the matter – organized religion, at its core and from its earliest forms, was little more than mankind’s attempt to make sense out of a confusing, dangerous world. Starting at the tribal level, religious authority was seized by certain ambitious types as a way to make themselves important, powerful and wealthy.

By the time we got to the time of Jesus Christ, of course, the world’s major religions had evolved to be among the wealthiest, most powerful organizations in existence, based on claims that no one could verify as fact.

Twain wrote a marvelous little book, “Letters From the Earth,” in 1887 or so, purporting to catalogue a number of letters from the Archangel Satan to his fellow archangels, Gabriel and Michael. Satan had taken a little road trip to our odd little globe to check up on how The Creator’s work was going. Satan’s assessment is not flattering to humanity at large or to the religions it has spawned.

Give it a read some time. It’s worth a trip to the library, since that is probably the only place you’ll find it in these unenlightened days. Twain himself once opined that the book could never be published in America, since doing so would be a felonious breach of our nation’s peace.

Anyways, as I contemplate the sad state of politics today, I am increasingly worried by the religious fervor that is invading our political dialogue. Ever since the Rev. Billy Graham anointed himself as Pastor to the Presidents, I have felt a growing unease about the direction in which we are headed.

Religion has no place in government, and to rely on religious fervor as the motivating factor in a political campaign is, automatically, a slap in the face to all those who do not share the particular faith in question.

There are dozens upon dozens of religions in the world, from tiny sects to the massive, bureaucratic behemoth known generally as Christianity.

By that metric alone, it should be clear that permitting religions to rule nations is a bad idea, because every religion thinks it, and it alone, has god on its side. And they can’t all be right.

jcolson@aspentimes.com


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