by Eric Lane
On Feb. 11, Pastor Theo Wolmarans from the Christian Family Church stood before the City Council and gave an invocation that divided the world into two types of people: those who believe in his god and those who do the devil’s work.
Mayor Ivy Taylor’s response was disappointing. Instead of recognizing that she is the mayor of all San Antonio residents, and defending the city’s diversity and inclusiveness, she defended the pastor’s words — words that are fine in a church or private home but do not belong in the government square.
One of the problems we face today is that many fundamentalist and evangelical Christians believe their religious beliefs should dominate our culture. They oppose government neutrality or what has come to be known as separation of church and state. They want the Ten Commandments displayed on government property. They want creationism taught in public science classes. They oppose marriage equality, access to contraceptives and so on. When they don’t get their way, they cry out that their religious freedoms are being denied. In other words, it’s their way or you are going to hell.
There is nothing wrong with what folks believe. Everyone has the right to believe whatever they wish as long as it doesn’t harm someone else. Our Constitution and Bill of Rights affirm these values.
But sometimes we need to be reminded that America’s founders bequeathed to us an incredible gift: the separation of church and state. This simple gift allows every American to follow the dictates of his own conscience. Whether this leads to belief or nonbelief, to the government, it doesn’t matter.
You cannot have freedom of conscience, you cannot have a true democracy, you cannot have freedom of any sort if the government is run and the laws are written by a particular religion. Take a good look at the religious wars going on in the world today. Would they be happening if church and state were separate?
The founders understood this. That’s why the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (also known as the first 10 amendments) make no mention of a god, or Jesus, or divine entity. As hard as it is for many fundamentalists to believe, the founders did not want any religion involved in running the country. They made it pretty clear. And it had nothing to do with being anti-religion. They were guarding against the consequences of theocracy. Many of them had either witnessed or studied the religious wars in Europe, including the sporadic religious wars in France, during which 2 million to 4 million French Catholic and Huguenot (Protestant) men, women and children were massacred. Try to imagine the carnage.
Then, right here in the Colonies, religious persecution and prosecution were rampant. Quaker men and women were hanged for their religious beliefs in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Countless women and men were stripped to their waists, tied behind wooden carts, their ears cut or mutilated, and whipped with knotted rope while being “escorted” out of the colony. There was more. But this gives you an idea.
We need to understand that people, throughout history, died horrible deaths at the hands of religious fanatics. Some of the most horrific and vile things were done to human beings for religious reasons.
Because the founders bequeathed the separation of church and state, we’ve never had religious wars in the United States. We need to guard this precious right with every fiber of our being. There are no freedoms without church and state being separate. And we already know what will happen if we let down our guard.
Pastor Wolmarans may be one of the finest men to ever traverse this planet. But his beliefs should not receive the imprimatur of the government. The City Council needs to reassess invocations at official meetings. Do we really need them? What do they have to do with city business? Would a minute of silence that is inclusive and respects the diversity that exists in our city today be better? Many cities are using this option. Or would no invocation at all be better, as many cities are also doing?
Whatever the City Council decides, it should be based on the respect for the religious and the nonreligious.
Eric Lane is president of the San Antonio Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church & State. He can be contacted at ausa.president@americans unitedsa.org