Solving the Problem of Religion

The interplay between business interests and government in the U.S. is causing concern across the political spectrum.  Regardless of which party is in office, major industry players wielding multi-billion dollar lobbies are finding a seat at the negotiating table.  Tea Party patriots and Occupy Wall protesters seem to be manifestations of different sides of the same coin.  They worry that things have gotten out of control, that Wall Street should not have been bailed out, and that somehow financial interests are too well represented in government.

“But what can we do about it?”

As it turns out, a lot.  We can learn a little bit more about this great country we live in, which has solved this problem before — and brilliantly.


In 18th Century America one of the many perplexities that the American Founders had to cope with was the interplay between religion and government.

In Europe, the relationship between Church and State began during the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine I, who converted to Christianity and granted property to the Catholic Bishop of Rome.  Christianity later became the dominant/official religion of the Roman Empire.  Subsequently the Church as political power perpetrated many atrocities such as the Crusades and Inquisitions.  Isn’t this right?

Not completely.

For some reason in the U.S. we (myself included!) often equate “religion” with “Christianity”.  The reality is that religion has at almost all times and all places been related to political power, and for good reason.  Being able to control people’s moral convictions — their views on right and wrong, and who they obey — has tremendous value.  For example, before Constantine the Roman Empire was surprisingly tolerant of the different religions practiced by its conquered nations, but not completely so.  The Romans believed in many gods and viewed their Emperor as one of them.  There was no inherent conflict between the gods of subservient peoples and the Roman gods per se because the Roman gods were more like immortal men and women, not absolute and exclusive beings.  As tolerant as they were, the Romans did insist that one religious dogma be observed throughout the empire.  Would you like to guess what that was?  That the Emperor was a deity to be worshiped by all Roman subjects.

This is partly what led to the early persecution of Christians.  Christians didn’t recognize the Emperor as a god and were charged and persecuted as “atheists”.  Their real crime was not threatening Roman religion, but rather undermining Roman authority.

And it has always been thus.  Even today, leaders will portray themselves as moral authorities and mythic figures to gain more power over their people.  In the People’s Republic of China, the State continues to use religion to achieve its political goals (in 2013!!!).  Instead of allowing a privately operated Roman Catholic congregation loyal to the Pope, they cleverly set up a Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association that reports to the State Administration for Religious Affairs, and predictably rejects the authority of the Vatican.  Nothing like receiving Mass and nationalistic indoctrination at the same time!  It’s a twofer!

So the American Founders looked closely at a question that had confounded humankind for millennia: “What is the proper role of religion with respect to the state?”

Several of them, including George Washington and Patrick Henry, were not opposed to state sponsorship of religion.  They viewed the Protestant teachings of their times as salutary and beneficial, and thought that religion needed encouragement (e.g. tax paying support).  In the largest of the 13 Colonies, Virginia, the official religion was the Church of England (Anglican Church).  Virginians were forced by law to pay tithes, and membership in the Church was a prerequisite to holding public office.  The preaching of other religions was illegal and occasionally Baptist and other ministers would be locked up.  It’s not difficult to understand why Anglican ministers in various government positions encouraged this state of affairs — it made them better off.

But the insights that clear thinking men like Jefferson and Madison had were that religion became problematic when it was combined with coercion (i.e. the ability to force adherence).  And this wasn’t just a one way street.  It was just as problematic when the government was able to coerce religion.  So, in a nutshell, they wondered:

How do we protect people from religious coercion, and religion from political coercion?

Their solution was extremely novel, perhaps not in its rationale, but in its implementation.  The first stroke was in 1786 when the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom was passed with support from Madison and based on an original draft written by Jefferson.  The second and most famous stroke was the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Most people have described these solutions as “Separation of Church and State”, “establishing a Secular Government”, or as “Religious Freedom”, but none of these is thoroughly descriptive.  For example, do churches operate in the U.S. similar to Indian Reservations, with their own laws, judges, police etc.?  Are they truly separate from the State?  No.  If a clergyman breaks the law, he is still punished.  Copyright laws apply to religious texts just as they do to secular texts.  They are not separate, then.  And for this same reason we do not have infinite religious freedom.  Except for rare exceptions like Native Americans smoking peyote, our religious convictions do not give us license to do things (like committing fraud or murder) that would otherwise be considered criminal, regardless of how sincere our belief in those things might be.

The term “Secular Government” is correct if secular means “not overtly or specifically religious”, but most often we would think of the term as meaning, “non-religious”.  Does it give the right impression to say that a government that strongly protects religious liberty, has no connection with the practice of religion?  We need a better description.

The text from the 1st Amendment is as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

In other words, Congress has no right to favor or discriminate against any religion with respect to another.  It can pass laws affecting the freedom of all citizens (like prohibitions against stealing), but not targeted laws that curtail the practice of a religious activity — like meeting in a group — that is otherwise legal for everyone else.  In effect, in America:

All religions must be treated equally by Congress.

All citizens must be treated equally irrespective of their religious convictions.

And this beautifully solved the problem of religious coercion.  The State cannot coerce religion because it does not have the power to favor or injure a specific church or creed.  By protecting religion from coercion in this way, we also protect ourselves from religious power.  Since the government cannot offer favors to religion, religion is not tempted to use the government as a means for increasing its influence.  For example, what interest would the Catholic Church have in lobbying Congress if Congress does not have the power to provide a benefit specifically to the Catholic Church?  Mormons (Latter-day Saints) cannot use the government to promote the cause of Mormonism because the government has little power to do such a thing.  It cannot outlaw the preaching of competing faiths, or conscript citizens to serve Mormon missions.

It matters.

It’s only when we have a clear understanding that religious liberty in America boils down to religious equality that we can then apply this same solution to business.  The fundamental problems with business are the same:

How do we protect people from commercial coercion, and commerce from political coercion?

And now you know the answer, the one that all Americans embrace every day with respect to religion and that has worked wonderfully for over 200 years:

All industries must be treated equally by Congress.

All businesses and citizens must be treated equally irrespective of their commercial pursuits.

More on this to come.