Prayer at graduation is our focus this week, given the season, but public prayer is a small case representing a large principle: the separation of church and state. The U.S. Supreme Court has been notoriously inconsistent in the application of this principle, as I noted yesterday.
Why? Because the high court has seriously misinterpreted the original intent of the drafters of the Constitution and misunderstood the role of religion in sustaining American democracy. Now that’s a tall claim. But it’s made by attorney Michael M. Maddigan in an article published in the California Law Review. And I think he’s right, based on the findings in my book “America’s Crisis of Values.” (You can learn more about that book by clicking on the cover at right.)
Religious organizations are part of “civil society”—the voluntary sector for which Americans are especially proficient. This was true centuries ago and it’s true now. Over half of all the social capital in America today—the bonds of belonging, meaning, and commitment—are formed via religious organizations, says political scientist Robert Putnam. Religious organizations teach more than theology. They also teach the virtues that undergird democracy: honesty, altruism, generosity, hard work, and concern for the welfare of others. The drafters of the Constitution understood this. The Religion Clauses in the Constitution were meant to prevent state-sponsored religion and to grant freedom for religion. But their intent was not to eliminate state support of religion’s role in civil society. The high court’s focus should be distinguishing between theological religion and civil religion, refusing to support the theological side but promoting the civil side of religious organizations.
“Religion’s unique function in American society is essentially the same today as the drafters understood it to be when the Constitution was adopted,” writes Maddigan. This should satisfy the originalists—those who insist on following the original intent of the framers. Those who view the Constitution as a living document should also be satisfied. (You can read more about Originalism vs. Living Constitution by jumping to a series on OurValues last year.)
Do you agree? Has the Supreme Court got it all wrong—and in the process, imperiled the democratic values of American society?
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(Originally published in www.OurValues.org)