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Why We Don’t Want State Religion

by Rabbi Rami ShapiroJuly 23, 2019
The crossroads of religion and politics

jswinborne/Getty Images

“To put it bluntly: the more power a religion has, the more power a religion wants, and it gets that power at the expense of human freedom.”

The recently released Pew Research Study on religious restrictions shows that “laws, policies and actions by state officials that restrict religious beliefs and practices [have] increased markedly around the world.” The countries with the highest rates of restriction are countries that favor Islam. This is because in most countries that have a state religion, that religion is Islam. Other countries with a state religion did poorly on the survey as well: Samoa, Greece, Iceland, the United Kingdom and Israel fall into this category. The first four of these favor Christianity, the last favors Judaism. China, too, rates high on religious restrictions but in their case the restriction is against religion in general.

The take away from the Pew report isn’t that some religions are liberal while others are illiberal, but that a state religion is always illiberal. To put it bluntly: the more power a religion has, the more power a religion wants, and it gets that power at the expense of human freedom.

The United States is in a unique position. Our uniqueness doesn’t come from the fact that the pilgrims were fleeing religious persecution since, as soon as they could get away with it, they started persecuting others for their faith. What makes the U.S. exceptional is the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. Or does it?

The First Amendment prohibits the federal government from passing laws “respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” but it says nothing about the states establishing a religion. This is why a few years ago the legislature of the North Carolina introduced a resolution claiming that the state did have the right to establish a religion. While the resolution was never voted on, it opened the conversation as to whether a state could set up an official religion.

Lots of Americans believe that the United States is a Christian nation, as opposed to a nation established by Christians. The reason we don’t make Christianity our official state religion is because no one can agree as to what Christianity is or which version of Christianity is the True Christianity. If we could, there wouldn’t be dozens of Christian denominations.

Joseph Smith put this question of Christian authenticity to God in the 19th century. He claimed God told him no existing version of Christianity was authentic and instructed hiim to establish the true church which we call today the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So, if we were to listen to Smith's God, Mormonism would be the official religion of the United States. I doubt that would sit well with most of my Christian neighbors who hide in their bathrooms whenever Mormon missionaries come knocking on their doors. (I always welcome them in to discuss theology. I’m quirky that way.)

But states are different. Or, if they aren’t, what about cities? The Constitution doesn’t explicitly prohibit cities from establishing their own religion. Brooklyn might vote to make Hasidic Judaism its official religion, and San Francisco/Silicon Valley might vote to make Transhumanism its official religion, hoping not for the End Times but for the moment pf Singularity when carbon- and silicone-based life forms merge into some new creation: “Our Algorithm who art in Cloud, hallowed be thy Name (Siri).” Of course, as soon as that would happened the followers of Alexa would start a religious war against the Siri-ans. Go figure.

The take-away for me is simple: keep religions as powerless as possible. This is why, I suspect, when Jesus told his disciples to spread the Gospel he commanded them to “take nothing for the journey: no walking stick, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt” (Luke 9:3). It’s hard to rule over people and restrict their religious freedoms when you only have one shirt.

Rabbi Rami Shipiro

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award-winning author, essayist, poet, and teacher. His spiritual advice column, “Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler,” addresses reader questions pertaining to religion, spirituality, faith, family, God, social issues, and more. His latest book is Surrendered—The Sacred Art: Shattering the Illusion of Control and Falling into Grace with Twelve-Step Spirituality.

He has this to say about religion: “To me, religions are like languages: no language is true or false; all languages are of human origin; each language reflects and shapes the mindset of the civilization that speaks it; there are things you can say in one language that you cannot say or cannot say as well in another; and the more languages you know, the more nuanced your understanding of life. Judaism is my mother tongue, yet in matters of the spirit I strive to be multi-lingual. In the end, however, the deepest language of the soul is silence.”

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