Prayer and pedophilia

Prayer and pedophilia: The separationist dilemma

Critical distinctions in the U.S. religious liberty debate

Clifford Goldstein is the editor of the Adult Bible Study Guide. He has authored 17 books.

During an anticapital punishment campaign in France, postmodernist avatar Michel Foucalt wrote a letter to a major French newspaper in which he urged the abolition of not just the death penalty but of prisons themselves!

Foucalt argued that criminality, like madness and morality, are all merely subjective constructs, social attitudes imposed by those in power for the sole purpose of exerting political domination. He reasoned that society's preference for a nun over, say, a pedophile, is no different than preference for Franciscan Chardonnay over Sauvignon blanc. Thus, Foucalt said, prisons are nothing but manifestations of power by the elite and, therefore, their walls should be torn down and all their inmates released.

Foucalt, who died of AIDS in 1984, had an uncanny knack for being able to take his premises to their logical, if untenable, ends. Once a person determines that no ultimate and absolute moral transcendence exists, that there are no eternal laws or principles that humans can tap into in order to derive moral guidance, that "truth" is merely a fluctuating and contingent expression of human desire, culture, and physiology---conclusions such as Foucalt's become the only logical alternatives, no matter how troubling or destructive they may prove to be.

Because, as Adventists, Foucalt's premises are not ours, his conclusions aren't either. Nevertheless, despite the overarching Seventh-day Adventist great controversy theme the architectonic template within which we fit and explain reality the moral fuzziness so prevalent in postmodernism has subtly filtered into our own thinking. And nowhere is there a truer example of this filtering than in the issue of church-state separation.

The separationist principle

Church-state separation arose out of a belief that God created natural laws and that humankind could find freedom, fulfillment, and happiness by obeying those laws. The principle is premised not only on the notion that truth exists but that this truth can be known, lived, and implemented in everyday life. This is heresy to the postmodernist notion that truth is nothing but (to quote Nietzsche) "a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms in short a sum of human relations... which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people." Separationism was founded upon an overarching, enduring, and universal moral truth, which is that God wants human beings to be free and happy, that He has placed the desire for these ideals in the heart of the rational and moral beings He created. Further, one of the best ways to ensure that happiness and freedom is to allow humanity to worship and serve God (or not to) according to the dictates of conscience.

"Separation of church and state," I wrote in a recent Liberty editorial, "is an edifice, however limited, built upon the concept that God in heaven has established eternal norms of right and wrong, good and evil, justice and injustice and that one fundamental expression of this right, good, and justice is freedom to worship God according to the dictates of one's own conscience and not the conscience of others."

Thus, when government-funded sex education programs are challenged because they are seen to be in violation of separationism because they advocate sexual abstinence before marriage, Madison and Jefferson's original principle has been turned on its head. When same-sex marriage or gay rights are defended on the basis of the Establishment Clause, the time (to quote Hamlet) "is out of joint." Even on the inimitable SDA CompuServe forum, some have argued that to restrict a woman's right to abortion would be to violate church-state separation. This argument is akin to using the Free Speech Clause to combat noise pollution laws!

The Establishment Clause was meant to stop the government from imposing, even promoting, religious forms and worship, not from promoting morality, even if that morality has as it almost inevitably does have some sort of religious under pinning. Our society's moral base, to one degree or another, is rooted in our religious heritage, and thus of necessity so are our laws. As a Supreme Court justice wrote in a case involving the practice of homosexuality, "the law ... is constantly based on notions of morality" and those notions are almost always religiously derived. You can no more separate law from morality or morality from religion than you can the song from the sound and the sound from the singer.

"A state," wrote British jurist Lord Patrick Devlin, "which refuses to enforce Christian beliefs has lost the right to enforce Christian morals."

Nonsense. Prayer and pedophilia both have their respective admonition and prohibition rooted in Christianity. Separation demands that the first not be imposed. But this has nothing to do with laws that forbid the latter. Some might argue that the difference between the two acts merely represent two different points on the same continuum of actions, either admonished or proscribed in Christianity; however, even a quantitative difference, if wide enough apart, can become qualitative, as with prayer and pedophilia.

The protector of faith

Far from being a mechanism of moral nihilism, church-state separation was instituted to expedite civic morality. America's Founding Fathers understood that a democracy, in which the people themselves play a major role in government, must have a moral base. They called it "civic virtue," and all agreed that religion was crucial in promulgating it.

Indeed, the early American debate over separation of church and state was never over the necessity of religion as the foundation for morals. Religion was deemed by everyone to be critical to the formation and maintenance of polity. The debate, instead, was over how best to preserve and protect the free exercise of religious faith. Some believed that religion needed government support, others (like Madison, Jefferson, Washington, and Franklin) believed that it would thrive on its own. The latter won out; the United States maintains a certain level of "religious vitality" that in many ways exceeds that of other western, industrialized nations.

Whose morality?

Whether banning bubble gum (as in Singapore) or prayer (as in former communist Albania) or murder (as in everywhere), governments always enforce morality. The question, of course, is Whose? In America, established as a republic, laws in most cases should reflect the morals of the majority. Because the majority of Americans have some sort of Christian background or heritage, Christian morality (as opposed to animist or Buddhist) is still regnant.

The question is where government draws the line. Lines drawn that forbid rape and lines drawn that forbid lust are both lines drawn, however far apart. Church-state separation is meant to keep the line from being drawn in the area of religious forms and worship alone. Thus separationism should have no more do to with general laws about abortion, pornography, or condoms than with laws about the speed limit, campaign finance, or securities trading. Otherwise, any law with a moral base (which is about every law) will become suspect and, in the end, to be logical a la Foucalt, even the prison walls will have to come down. That's hardly a position that Adventists want to find themselves defending, even implicitly. That is why we had better stay off Foucalt's postmodernist road to begin with.

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Clifford Goldstein is the editor of the Adult Bible Study Guide. He has authored 17 books.

December 1998

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