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Separation of Church and State: Comparing America and Europe

C. Gerstle

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Separation of church and state is an idea that was largely started in America by the Founding Fathers. They explicitly stated that the United States was not founded on Christianity or any other religion, the complete opposite of what was going on in Europe at the time, where every nation had an official state-funded church.

How times have changed. The line separating church and state has blurred somehow in America due to the rise of the Christian Right, leading to ridiculous displays of religiosity in government from the Ten Commandments on courthouse walls to nativity scenes on display at city governments. Meanwhile in Europe, public school teachers aren't even allowed to wear religious accessories such as necklaces at work. I look at the growth of a firmly secular European Union and the descent of America into religious dogmatism and think to myself "What happened to secular America?" This is a country where senatorial campaigners can insult atheists in campaign ads (2008 NC Senatorial race Dole vs Hagan) and get away with it. We can't get away with making racy, not even racist, comments in politics, but you can get away with attacking a political opponent for accepting campaign donations from atheists.

America needs to take a few lessons from Europe. The ridiculous religiosity in America (something that sets America apart from the rest of the developed world) makes this country look like a, to use Sam Harris' words, "bellicose, dim-witted giant." Any thoughts?
 

Black Dog

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Separation of church and state is an idea that was largely started in America by the Founding Fathers. They explicitly stated that the United States was not founded on Christianity or any other religion, the complete opposite of what was going on in Europe at the time, where every nation had an official state-funded church.

How times have changed. The line separating church and state has blurred somehow in America due to the rise of the Christian Right, leading to ridiculous displays of religiosity in government from the Ten Commandments on courthouse walls to nativity scenes on display at city governments. Meanwhile in Europe, public school teachers aren't even allowed to wear religious accessories such as necklaces at work. I look at the growth of a firmly secular European Union and the descent of America into religious dogmatism and think to myself "What happened to secular America?" This is a country where senatorial campaigners can insult atheists in campaign ads (2008 NC Senatorial race Dole vs Hagan) and get away with it. We can't get away with making racy, not even racist, comments in politics, but you can get away with attacking a political opponent for accepting campaign donations from atheists.

America needs to take a few lessons from Europe. The ridiculous religiosity in America (something that sets America apart from the rest of the developed world) makes this country look like a, to use Sam Harris' words, "bellicose, dim-witted giant." Any thoughts?
The Country is according to statistics 70+ percent Christian. You expect them not to have a voice in government or follow the morals they view as correct?

I mean lets be real here. A nativity scene is fine as is a menorah etc during the holidays. The ten commandments are a metaphor for the rule of law. It is not in any way endorsing any religion. Well that is unless a militant atheist who is angry at all religion sees it and decides to be offended. :lol:
 

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Separation of church and state is an idea that was largely started in America by the Founding Fathers. They explicitly stated that the United States was not founded on Christianity or any other religion, the complete opposite of what was going on in Europe at the time, where every nation had an official state-funded church.

How times have changed. The line separating church and state has blurred somehow in America due to the rise of the Christian Right, leading to ridiculous displays of religiosity in government from the Ten Commandments on courthouse walls to nativity scenes on display at city governments. Meanwhile in Europe, public school teachers aren't even allowed to wear religious accessories such as necklaces at work. I look at the growth of a firmly secular European Union and the descent of America into religious dogmatism and think to myself "What happened to secular America?" This is a country where senatorial campaigners can insult atheists in campaign ads (2008 NC Senatorial race Dole vs Hagan) and get away with it. We can't get away with making racy, not even racist, comments in politics, but you can get away with attacking a political opponent for accepting campaign donations from atheists.

America needs to take a few lessons from Europe. The ridiculous religiosity in America (something that sets America apart from the rest of the developed world) makes this country look like a, to use Sam Harris' words, "bellicose, dim-witted giant." Any thoughts?


You obviously can't tell the difference between a nation whose citizens have religious liberty, and a theocracy. Sad.
 

Kernel Sanders

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The ten commandments are a metaphor for the rule of law. It is not in any way endorsing any religion. Well that is unless a militant atheist who is angry at all religion sees it and decides to be offended. :lol:
I don't know how representative they are of law. Only two of the commandments are actually laws (kill and steal). Also, the first three are entirely religious and make no sense outside of the context of Abrahamic religion
 

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I don't know how representative they are of law. Only two of the commandments are actually laws (kill and steal). Also, the first three are entirely religious and make no sense outside of the context of Abrahamic religion
Well it was the law handed down from God to the people. Has nothing to do with what it said.

Like I said unless someone is an easily offended militant hater of religion or Christianity in particular, it's really a non issue.

It's funny. You totaly ignore the point of my statement, and attack a pretty meaningless part of an example. :doh
 
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Kernel Sanders

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I agree with the rest of what you said. I just don't think the 10 commandments are relevant to our legal system at all
 

Goshin

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I agree with the rest of what you said. I just don't think the 10 commandments are relevant to our legal system at all

You know that in the SCOTUS building, they have displays including various historical icons, such as the 10 commandments, the Code of Hammurabi, and other items... it isn't exclusively about the 10 commandments but a display of respect for how WRITTEN law came into being, as opposed to rule-by-the-King's-whim-of-the-moment.
 

Black Dog

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I agree with the rest of what you said. I just don't think the 10 commandments are relevant to our legal system at all
They aren't, it is just a metaphor for law in history, period.
 

Al Battani

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Blackdog,

If the presence of the Ten Commandments on courthouse buildings is metaphorical what is the meaning of the metaphor? I can appreciate Goshin's point about them being present as part of a wider display on the evolution of written law but I'm not clear on how you understand the meaning behind the metaphor.

To address the OP more specifically, the problem as I see it is, as Blackdog said, the demographics of the country. If it's true that c. 70% of the nation is Christian (although I'd argue that a reasonable proportion of them would separate that from their political views) then that's naturally going to translate in to pressure on politicians to appeal to their vote. The fundamental tension is between the First Amendment (no religious test for office) and democratic politics. Not something that can easily be remedied.
 

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You know that some European countries have state-funded religious schools, right?
 

Black Dog

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Blackdog,

If the presence of the Ten Commandments on courthouse buildings is metaphorical what is the meaning of the metaphor? I can appreciate Goshin's point about them being present as part of a wider display on the evolution of written law but I'm not clear on how you understand the meaning behind the metaphor.
It is an analogy of the law giver, and the rule of law. Or between the court and the law.

It represents Christianity no more than it represents the ancient Israelites it was actually handed down too.

It is just a symbol of law at this point. Much like Christmas is no more than Santa.
 
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digsbe

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I think the people who have an issue with the 10 commandments are lawyers. It's hard for them to do their job when they read "do not lie" and "do not steal" on the walls.:liar2
 

Dav

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Separation of church and state is an idea that was largely started in America by the Founding Fathers. They explicitly stated that the United States was not founded on Christianity or any other religion, the complete opposite of what was going on in Europe at the time, where every nation had an official state-funded church.

How times have changed. The line separating church and state has blurred somehow in America due to the rise of the Christian Right, leading to ridiculous displays of religiosity in government from the Ten Commandments on courthouse walls to nativity scenes on display at city governments. Meanwhile in Europe, public school teachers aren't even allowed to wear religious accessories such as necklaces at work. I look at the growth of a firmly secular European Union and the descent of America into religious dogmatism and think to myself "What happened to secular America?" This is a country where senatorial campaigners can insult atheists in campaign ads (2008 NC Senatorial race Dole vs Hagan) and get away with it. We can't get away with making racy, not even racist, comments in politics, but you can get away with attacking a political opponent for accepting campaign donations from atheists.

America needs to take a few lessons from Europe. The ridiculous religiosity in America (something that sets America apart from the rest of the developed world) makes this country look like a, to use Sam Harris' words, "bellicose, dim-witted giant." Any thoughts?
Pretty much everything you said here is completely wrong.

You are wrong that Europe has less separation of church and state than the U.S. Many countries there still have a state-funded church, and a state religion.

You are wrong that "The line separating church and state has blurred somehow in America due to the rise of the Christian Right". Today's "Christian Right" would have been considered pansy, Jesus-hating leftists a few hundred years ago. We've gotten less religious, not more. We did not have a "descent into religious dogmatism".

You are wrong that a nativity scene display at a city hall is a "ridiculous display of religiosity". It's a symbol of a national holiday for goodness sakes. Not an endoresement of a religion. At Hannukah, the White House puts up a Menorah now; is that a ridiculous display of religiosity? What about the national Christmas tree?

America is not ridiculously religious, and anyone who thinks that our being more religious than many countries makes us look dim-witted is entitled to their opinion as they eat their McDonalds while watching the Simpsons and using their Microsoft computer and Apple iPod.
 

Al Battani

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"Today's 'Christian Right' would have been considered pansy, Jesus-hating leftists a few hundred years ago. We've gotten less religious, not more. We did not have a 'descent into religious dogmatism'."

I disagree. I'm not sure how you're making this comparison but the United States has certainly become, if not more religious, more actively religious. Survey data (from Pew polls and other sources) shows that the percentage of people in the United States that rate religious belief as 'very important' is 61%, second only to Turkey (65%) by comparison with Europe. As a comparison, Britain polled at 33%, Italy at 27%, Germany at 21% and France at 11%. These statistics are further emphasised by weekly church attendance data, with an average of 42% of Americans attending church once or almost once every week compared with an average of 21% in Europe and this gap is growing.

On a more anecdotal level, consider the rise of evangelical figures over the past quarter of a century: Pat Robertson, Billy Graham etc. These mass-based evangelical churches are a recent phenomenon and their numbers have swelled drastically over the past twenty five years. Granted many of these people would have made a 'lateral move' so to speak, i.e. they simply joined from another church. However, these new evangelical churches are far more vocal and politically active than many of the more 'traditional' churches.
 

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Blackdog, If the presence of the Ten Commandments on courthouse buildings is metaphorical what is the meaning of the metaphor? I can appreciate Goshin's point about them being present as part of a wider display on the evolution of written law but I'm not clear on how you understand the meaning behind the metaphor.
It doesn't really need to mean anything. It doesn't violate the Consitution. If it doesn't violate the Constitution and the majority of a state wants something, there's nothing wrong with it legally. You don't like it, move to another state. Vote with your feet.

To address the OP more specifically, the problem as I see it is, as Blackdog said, the demographics of the country. If it's true that c. 70% of the nation is Christian (although I'd argue that a reasonable proportion of them would separate that from their political views) then that's naturally going to translate in to pressure on politicians to appeal to their vote. The fundamental tension is between the First Amendment (no religious test for office) and democratic politics. Not something that can easily be remedied.
Religious Test For Political Office =/= The Ten Commandments. What the hell is people's problem with all that crap? Many of states back in the time of the Founders had state churches. If the Founders meant the First Amendment to mean what the ACLU think it does, it would never have been ratified by a majority of the states. Period.
 
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Orion

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There's a difference between religious rule and a country that has freedom of religion and democracy where a high percentage of people are Christian. To the unkeen eye it might seem like Christianity is law, but really it's just Christians exercising their democracy. There has been relative balance for a long time now.

It's the evangelicals that are the biggest threat to the U.S. political system because they would unify Church and State if they could, but they are not representative of the majority of Christians living in the U.S. Likewise, I think the rampant secularists are also a problem when they go after every little piece of religious iconography that appears in the public realm, ignoring completely their traditional origins. It's only causing a **** storm that is making the far religious right want to fight back.

The two can live in peace if they would just grow up already and stop trying to be thought police for the rest of the population.
 

Black Dog

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There's a difference between religious rule and a country that has freedom of religion and democracy where a high percentage of people are Christian. To the unkeen eye it might seem like Christianity is law, but really it's just Christians exercising their democracy. There has been relative balance for a long time now.

It's the evangelicals that are the biggest threat to the U.S. political system because they would unify Church and State if they could, but they are not representative of the majority of Christians living in the U.S. Likewise, I think the rampant secularists are also a problem when they go after every little piece of religious iconography that appears in the public realm, ignoring completely their traditional origins. It's only causing a **** storm that is making the far religious right want to fight back.

The two can live in peace if they would just grow up already and stop trying to be thought police for the rest of the population.
Amazingly good post.
 

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People seem to forget what the constitution says on the matter (1st Amendment):

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

So we have the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.

Per the Establishment Clause: "The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of a national religion by the Congress or the preference of one religion over another, non-religion over religion, or religion over non-religion."

It applies to the federal government and the state governments. This doesn't say that religion should be out of government. It says that government must not choose a religion.

The separation of church and state only applies to the state.

Per the Free Exercise Clause: "In 1878, the Supreme Court was first called to interpret the extent of the Free Exercise Clause in Reynolds v. United States, as related to the prosecution of polygamy under federal law. The Supreme Court upheld Mr. Reynolds' conviction for bigamy, deciding that to do otherwise would provide constitutional protection for a gamut of religious beliefs, including those as extreme as human sacrifice. The Court said (at page 162): "Congress cannot pass a law for the government of the Territory which shall prohibit the free exercise of religion. The first amendment to the Constitution expressly forbids such legislation." Of federal territorial laws, the Court said: "Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious beliefs and opinions, they may with practices.""

So the government can restrict religious practices. But otherwise must stay out of the business of religion.

It seems that a case could be made against the sole display of the ten commandments outside a courthouse. In the case of the SC, the 10 commandments are displayed with the code of Hammurabi and other systems of written law - that seems acceptable. But the sole display, in front of a courthouse, may violate the Establishment Clause, since a government entity is favoring one religion over the others and over non-religion. Evidently the sole display is religious in nature while the combined display at the SC is historical in nature.

Since nativity scenes are displayed along with Menorahs and other religious holidays, there is no preference. All that is needed is for atheists to come up with a holiday. I can't believe they don't have a holiday!
 
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Dav

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"Today's 'Christian Right' would have been considered pansy, Jesus-hating leftists a few hundred years ago. We've gotten less religious, not more. We did not have a 'descent into religious dogmatism'."

I disagree. I'm not sure how you're making this comparison but the United States has certainly become, if not more religious, more actively religious. Survey data (from Pew polls and other sources) shows that the percentage of people in the United States that rate religious belief as 'very important' is 61%, second only to Turkey (65%) by comparison with Europe. As a comparison, Britain polled at 33%, Italy at 27%, Germany at 21% and France at 11%. These statistics are further emphasised by weekly church attendance data, with an average of 42% of Americans attending church once or almost once every week compared with an average of 21% in Europe and this gap is growing.

On a more anecdotal level, consider the rise of evangelical figures over the past quarter of a century: Pat Robertson, Billy Graham etc. These mass-based evangelical churches are a recent phenomenon and their numbers have swelled drastically over the past twenty five years. Granted many of these people would have made a 'lateral move' so to speak, i.e. they simply joined from another church. However, these new evangelical churches are far more vocal and politically active than many of the more 'traditional' churches.
You fail to consider how this today is different from America in the past. Today, Pat Robertson is widely regarded as a nutjob. A few hundred years ago, his views would be considered mainstream - or even to the left of those. We're talking about an era when women voting and working outside the home wasn't even under consideration, not to mention rights for blacks and homosexuals. Churches like his have a following now precisely because the views they hold are dying out; people who hold those views realize this and are thus becoming more active in trying to reverse the trend. And just because 61% of people here consider religion very important doesn't change the fact that this number is less than it once was.
 

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People seem to forget what the constitution says on the matter (1st Amendment):

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

So we have the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.

Per the Establishment Clause: "The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of a national religion by the Congress or the preference of one religion over another, non-religion over religion, or religion over non-religion."

It applies to the federal government and the state governments. This doesn't say that religion should be out of government. It says that government must not choose a religion.
It does not apply to state governments, only to the federal government. Like I've said before, there were plenty of state churches during the time of the Founders that persisted after the Consitution went into effect. If the ACLU's interpretation of it was accurate, a) many people would have viciously opposed it for that reason, and b) the state churches would not exist after the Constitution went into effect. Neither of these are true.

So the government can restrict religious practices. But otherwise must stay out of the business of religion.
It would depend, I think. It would not be following the spirit of constitutional law to outlaw some obscure, not-considered-immoral-for-any-good-reason act practiced solely by a particular religion.

It seems that a case could be made against the sole display of the ten commandments outside a courthouse. In the case of the SC, the 10 commandments are displayed with the code of Hammurabi and other systems of written law - that seems acceptable. But the sole display, in front of a courthouse, may violate the Establishment Clause, since a government entity is favoring one religion over the others and over non-religion. Evidently the sole display is religious in nature while the combined display at the SC is historical in nature.
It does not violate the Constitution to put up the Ten Commandments at a state or even a federal courthouse, because Congress is not making any law to do so (I might be wrong on that, please correct me if I am). If a majority of the population of a community want the Ten Commandments at a courthouse, they can have the Ten Commandments at their courthouse.
 
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reefedjib

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It does not apply to state governments, only to the federal government. Like I've said before, there were plenty of state churches during the time of the Founders that persisted after the Consitution went into effect. If the ACLU's interpretation of it was accurate, a) many people would have viciously opposed it for that reason, and b) the state churches would not exist after the Constitution went into effect. Neither of these are true.
Correct, at the time of the founding. However:

"Originally, the First Amendment only applied to the federal government. Subsequently, McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203 (1948) incorporated certain select provisions. However, it was not until the middle to late twentieth century that the Supreme Court began to interpret the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses in such a manner as to restrict the promotion of religion by state governments. In the Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet, 512 U.S. 687 (1994), Justice David Souter, writing for the majority, concluded that "government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion."

It does not violate the Constitution to put up the Ten Commandments at a state or even a federal courthouse, because Congress is not making any law to do so (I might be wrong on that, please correct me if I am). If a majority of the population of a community want the Ten Commandments at a courthouse, they can have the Ten Commandments at their courthouse.
That seems plausible.
 

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Correct, at the time of the founding. However:

"Originally, the First Amendment only applied to the federal government. Subsequently, McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203 (1948) incorporated certain select provisions. However, it was not until the middle to late twentieth century that the Supreme Court began to interpret the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses in such a manner as to restrict the promotion of religion by state governments. In the Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet, 512 U.S. 687 (1994), Justice David Souter, writing for the majority, concluded that "government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion."


That seems plausible.
In other words, when the Supreme Court became liberal/progressive.......they started interpreting the Constitution differently than the Founders intended and courts for the first 150 years had ruled.
 
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Separation of church and state is an idea that was largely started in America by the Founding Fathers. They explicitly stated that the United States was not founded on Christianity or any other religion, the complete opposite of what was going on in Europe at the time, where every nation had an official state-funded church.

How times have changed. The line separating church and state has blurred somehow in America due to the rise of the Christian Right, leading to ridiculous displays of religiosity in government from the Ten Commandments on courthouse walls to nativity scenes on display at city governments. Meanwhile in Europe, public school teachers aren't even allowed to wear religious accessories such as necklaces at work. I look at the growth of a firmly secular European Union and the descent of America into religious dogmatism and think to myself "What happened to secular America?" This is a country where senatorial campaigners can insult atheists in campaign ads (2008 NC Senatorial race Dole vs Hagan) and get away with it. We can't get away with making racy, not even racist, comments in politics, but you can get away with attacking a political opponent for accepting campaign donations from atheists.

America needs to take a few lessons from Europe. The ridiculous religiosity in America (something that sets America apart from the rest of the developed world) makes this country look like a, to use Sam Harris' words, "bellicose, dim-witted giant." Any thoughts?
No we should not take lessons from Europe because you guys go too far against the individual's right to practice and express religious belief. There are a few things wrong here. Separation of Church and State was a term used by Jefferson in a letter. It is true that we need secular government, and thus far we have maintained that. I am not forced to go to a church on Sunday. I can freely express my atheism with no ill consequence from government. Our government rules by laws of man, not laws of gods.

We have not all of a sudden turned more religious. Some of our more religious wackjobs have found the bullhorn. They're just louder. But things like atheism are also slowly growing, or people are becoming comfortable enough within our society to express that belief. The 10 Commandments and Christmas displays and such are not new, they've been happening for quite some time. And if a community wishes to put a manger scene up on the courthouse; fine by me. It doesn't make me a Christian. It doesn't force me to church. They won't burn me at the stake.

So in the end if we look at the real difference between the US and Europe on this, Europe has adopted some draconian measures to act out against their own people and their rights and liberties. You've taken the "no one can be offended" route; and that's a dumb dumb route. I hope that America never follows. I prefer to take the "learn to deal with it" route where people are allowed the exercise of their rights and liberties, and the rest of us can just go ahead and get used to that.
 

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America needs to take a few lessons from Europe. The ridiculous religiosity in America (something that sets America apart from the rest of the developed world) makes this country look like a, to use Sam Harris' words, "bellicose, dim-witted giant." Any thoughts?
Id say even Europe needs to become even more secular. What place does an organisation which promotes sexism, anti homosexuality, anti other religions... have in a progressive society.

Right now, as I type this, I can hear the church bells breaking what are supposed to be enforcable noise laws, here in Germany. And they ring every 15 minutes. And, this is not the only intrusion of religion into the lives of those who are not affiliated with it. The presence of religion should be tolerated at best, but it should be kept quiet and not interfere with the lives of those who do not want it to.
 
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