Column – Mixing government and religion never ends well

Published 12:40 pm Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Theocracy: a system of government in which priests rule in the name of God or a god.

Those who would toy with creating a theocracy in the United States — and they are frighteningly numerous — need only look to the disastrous result of religious conflict in other countries and other centuries, as well as its too-often negative impact here, to see what a horrible idea it would be. And if they won’t look, the rest of us should.

Some of our country’s most conservative religious zealots are determined to declare the United States a Christian nation, which would be governed by Christian doctrine. They, of course, would be the “priests” who define that doctrine as it relates to society. We are not so far from that happening. In fact, we have taken major steps in that direction.

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Eighteenth and 19th century racist Christians used the Bible to defend slavery. Late 19th and 20th century racist Christians continued using it to defend segregation and the Jim Crow apartheid structure in the South and regrettably, part of the north, that has done so much to hold back African Americans trying to claim their share of what we are wont to call the American Dream.

More recently, anti-abortionists have picked up the mantle and have driven the country far to the right of much of the world in legislative restrictions that dictate the right of women to control their own bodies. Women are dying and girls barely into puberty are being forced to carry the children of depraved relatives who have raped them. 

We weren’t finished with that fight when LGBTQ ostracism was added to our growing list of culture wars, also known as things to hate. And we are now determined to give individuals the right to restrict what others are allowed to read.

The separation of church and state wasn’t an accident. It was a direct outgrowth of both the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment. Seventeenth and 18th century philosophers, whose work we regularly praise as the foundation of our democracy, correctly saw that when civil power was given to religion, man’s progress was inevitably hindered. They didn’t have to look back too far to see clear examples of it in the Spanish Inquisition and the excesses of Papal Rome.

John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, John Knox, Martin Luther, John Wesley and other religious reformers believed to varying degrees in religious freedom from government interference.

By the time the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights were penned, the concept of religious freedom was widely accepted, though not in law. 

I believe our Founding Fathers were, in fact, divinely inspired when they declared a clean separation of church and state. 

Thomas Jefferson, the leading proponent of the concept, envisioned it as a “wall of separation.” Jefferson considered one of his greatest contributions to be the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, upon which the First Amendment heavily leaned.

The First Amendment, its application later broadened by the 14th, has defined our view of religion and government until recently. Now, however, there is a serious movement to undo that model. Zealots of the right are arguing that the First Amendment restricts government from interfering with religion but does nothing to prevent religion from dictating the parameters of government. 

That’s been the basis for the anti-abortion movement and now the anti-gay movement. Rest assured that, given the opportunity, racist views that have never gone away will be embraced by the more extreme of that ilk if given the opportunity.

In short, they see religion as the bludgeon with which they can achieve control over segments of the population by defining actions they don’t like as “anti-Christian” and thus “anti-American.”

Recent hate crimes have all too often been a reflection of religious intolerance, and their numbers are increasing rapidly. Rather than fueling hate by trying to redefine the U.S. as a religious institution, we should be embracing the cultural and racial diversity that has been our strength. 

Instead, we find ourselves philosophically not all that far removed from the Salem witch trials, which were a deadly homegrown example of intolerant religion dictating social norms.

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is