The Score on Religion in Government [Last Modified on 2006.12.03]
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution states, in part, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...." What this actually means is that the government is prohibited from endorsing — legislatively, judicially, financially or otherwise — any religious beliefs, or from interfering with any individual's or group's rights to practice their religions.
It is not the First Amendment which dictates the "separation of church and state" which is widely (though incorrectly) known to be the core instruction of the amendment; rather, it was Thomas Jefferson who interpreted the First Amendment as "building a wall of separation between church and state" in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, which was written to explain why he would not use his power (as president) to legislate that the observance of religious holidays be required of American citizens. However, this interpretation, while not being the literal word of the Constitution, captures the spirit and intent of Establishment Clause.
One of the most significant reasons for the importance of the separation of church and state is one of simple fairness — the government would not be capable of supporting each and every religious belief system represented by our varied citizens, and would therefore have to choose to which religions to lend its endorsement. Rationally, one can see that the only fair choice is not to endorse any religion. Therefore, Jefferson's interpretation of the Establishment Clause is a carefully considered logical (and fair) solution.
The current fashion in politics seems to be to endorse "faith-based" projects and organizations — but let's look at the simple truth of the matter. If the "faith" involved is anything other than Christianity, these politicians of the Religious Right aren't interested in putting government support behind it. Imagine that a state court judge wished to install a monument in his courthouse, not to the biblical Ten Commandments, but to the Wiccan creed. Would any Right Wingers or politicians who cried foul in defense of Roy Moore have stood staunchly behind this hypothetical judge, defending his right to impose his "faith" on a secular institution? In our opinion, not only would they not be defending him, but they would be labelling him as evil, blasphemous, and against the grain of "proper" American moral values. What's important to remember is that any time a Christian Fundamentalist or a Right Wing politician refers to something as "faith-based", what they really mean is "Christian." After all, to them, those other religions are just silly and/or dangerous.
The partial tax exemption (it's not actually complete) enjoyed by religious organizations was a very bad decision, and must be revoked. While it does, on the surface, seem "fair" — all legitimate religious organizations are given partial tax exempt status — the criteria for what constitutes a "legitimate" religion are questionable. (Already in this country we have numerous religions — such as the Unitarians and Wiccans — which struggle to be accepted as "legitimate" religions and thereby gain partial tax exempt status, and many of the better established religions fight tooth and nail against such a ruling...which is hypocritical, in that these Evangelical Christians' ancestors came to this country in the first place to freely practice their religion, and their present-day counterparts are seeking to suppress the religious freedoms of others.) Because the government should not be wasting resources on the determination of which religions are "legitimate," the simple and obvious solution is to revoke any tax exempt status of all religious organizations — which maintains the fairness that Thomas Jefferson promoted in his interpretation of the Establishment Clause.
The Religious Right is constantly claiming that the United States of America was founded on "Christian principles." This is either a blatant lie, or gross ignorance of history. Consider Australia; most of the original settlers there (thousands of years after the aborigines) were Britain's criminal element. Yet when Australia became a nation in 1901 (hundreds of years after the first convicts were transported there), its people and government had no intention of basing their laws on the "criminal mindset" (perhaps legalizing murder, theft, vandalism and arson?). Similarly, though the first English-speaking settlers in North America were Puritans, when the United States became a nation in 1787 (over a hundred years after the arrival of the Puritans), its people and government had no intention of basing their laws on the "religious mindset." The fact that many of the Founding Fathers were, in fact, Christian men, and yet they still enacted the Establishment Clause, should make it readily apparent just how important this separation of church and state (as Jefferson put it) really is.
Our judicial system explicitly presumes that only those cases which can be logically or empirically proven are justifiable — "God made me do it!" and "God did it!" are not valid legal defenses. Just as our legal system is based on reason and science, so must our entire government be based on rational thought and the scientific method. Faith, unsupported by evidence, must not be accepted in our governmental decisions and actions.
The current fad of "playing up" one's religion to win election to a government office is a gross miscarriage of the intentions of the Founding Fathers. Our candidates must give us rational opinions and concrete solutions to the many problems currently facing our nation. Faith in an invisible magical superhero in the sky does not balance the budget, lower taxes, decrease unemployment, or win wars.