When Everyone Converts to Something Different – Why I Believe in the Necessity of the Separation of Church and State

Posted by at 5:27AM

I’ve always been a firm believer in the separation of Church and state. Even as a young child, I intuitively understood then necessity of keeping religion out of public discourse, even though my parents were evangelical fundamentalists.
I’m a believer in the firm separation of church and state because I’ve had the necessity modeled to me in both my parents family. You see, a couple years before I was born quiet a few of my aunts and uncles converted – to different religions and branches of Christianity.
My parents converted to a Protestant Fundamentalist sect, another couple of uncle’s became a Jehovah’s Witnesses, other became just plain Protestant, a whole branch of my Mom’s family became Mormon, along with one of my Dad’s brothers, while other aunt became a practicing Pagan. On my father’s side his parents were nominally Mexican Catholic while my mother’s mother and stepfather were agnostics.
Fired up with the zeal of their new found beliefs family members began immediately trying to save each other and those who took the live and let live approach. Protestant’s fought with each other and with the Catholics (some declared Catholics weren’t really Christians), then ganged up on the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons (whom they considered to be a different religion). Family gatherings became small religious wars in which each participant was determined to prove the others’ religions false. Individuals (such as my parents) began insisting on prayers over meals, which raised the question – whose prayer would be said. Relationships became strained.
Independently, each set of grandparents arrived at the only set of rules which would keep the peace – there would be no discussion of religion at family gatherings, at all. Those who did so would be asked to stop or to leave.

Surprisingly, my father’s parents, the Catholics, banned group prayers before meals. You could say your own private prayer, closing your eyes, over your own plate, but that was it. My mother’s parents, the agnostics, allowed prayers at holidays, but ruled they had to be generic “thank you for the food amen” types. Strained relations began to ease and, deprived their favorite topic, new discussions began to take place on neutral ground.
Make no mistake, my parents, and religious aunts and uncles are each still firmly convinced that the others are in danger of going to hell and in their own houses may occasionally engage in debates and attempt to invite each other to Church, but the rules my grandparents established have slowly begun seeping into family gatherings where my grandparents aren’t present. Allowances are made for different dietary requirements (such as setting aside a portion of food at a BBQ that is grilled separately from the pork products for the Muslim member of the family or making a vegan dish for fasting Orthodox members). At family gatherings people tiptoe around the subject of religion – “You went on a mission to Hawaii? How was Hawaii?” and the only occasions where it is brought up are weddings, and sadly, funerals. Even then, if the religion allows, people attempt to hold them outside of Churches so that others can attend or understand that for certain portions, other members of the family will be absent. As us kids have grown, religious diversity has only increased.
As I think about my family’s experience, the one thing which allowed the “separation of church and family” was the buy-in and commitment that each member had to remaining a member of the family. At first, members of the family acceded to my grandparents’ wishes because they wanted to see them, and later, continued to practice this behavior because they wanted to see each other and were committed to being a family.
As a scholar of religion, someone who reads and listens to a lot of religious media to try to get a handle on what’s happening in various religious groups (hello 1260AM Catholic Radio I saw your ad in front of the Stanford Mall), and as someone who grew up in (but is no longer) an evangelical fundamentalist setting, I worry that more and more various groups are no longer “buying-in” to the idea of America as a nation of diverse cultures and religions. The religious history of the founding of America is full of individuals fleeing religious persecution (the Quakers), people wanting to set up their own little theocracies (the Pilgrims), people just wanting to make a buck (Jamestown adventurers), and people whose religion the dominant culture attempt to erase (African slaves and Native Americans), it is a history filled with contention and warring ideologies which have been brought together into a common, more secular, culture. But the ideologies still continue to clash over cultural control. Increasingly, I believe, we face the danger of fragmentation.
When I was a child, fundamentalists had their own subculture – my family and I patronized different bookstores, listened to different radio stations (we didn’t watch TV), went to different elementary and high schools, and even had the option of going to different colleges than our “secular” neighbors. If anything, the gap between this subculture and others has only grown, and other, smaller groups, have developed their own separate subcultures as well.
When you don’t have contact with your “secular” (or whatever other division) neighbors, send your children to schools in which every subject is taught through the lens of your own theology and ideology (the history I learned literally began with the Garden of Eden and paralleled the Bible for early history), it becomes easy to demonize your cultural opponents as you literally share no common culture. It is hard for me to convey to someone who has not grown up in this kind of subculture the totality of it all and the ideological twisting of science and history that can go on in such environments. The ideologues that we listened to (such as James Dobson) told us we were at war.
My concern is that this rhetoric and mentality of separation has only gotten worse – if you are at war, you cannot have common ground with the enemy. This recognition of common ground is crucial if we are to prevent the fragmentation of American society and form a civil society with shared civic virtue.


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