People sometimes ask me why I got so interested in defending separation of church and state. The answer is simple: As a kid, I was sent to a Catholic school for eight years.
Don’t get me wrong. I had a lot of good teachers there and learned many things. But I found the school’s tendency to micro-manage prayer troubling. Three times a day, like clockwork, a nun, priest or lay teacher would order everyone to stand up and pray. In unison, we would chant one of two prayers – the “Our Father” or the “Hail Mary” – before sitting down for the lesson.
Even as a kid, I was struck by this. Something wasn’t right. If prayer is an attempt to connect with the divine, the eternal or with God, how can it be so regimented? Most of the time, I didn’t even think about the words I was mumbling. It was all by rote. We prayed because someone ordered us to, not because we felt the need to connect with a Supreme Being.
A private Catholic school had the right to make us pray like this, and I’m sure the nuns and priests thought it would increase our piety. Maybe it did for some kids, but in my case it backfired. As I got older, I became less and less interested in formalized and ritualized prayer, which felt spiritually empty to me. I started to chafe against the idea that individuals in authority could make me do it.
In ninth grade, I switched to a public school. Pennsylvania law at that time allowed for a moment of silence at the beginning of the day. It was a neutral moment. We weren’t urged to pray or do anything else. It was just there. After the Pledge of Allegiance and the morning announcements, the voice wafting over the public address system announced that we would observe a moment of silence.
I found this liberating. I could pray if I wanted – or not. The choice was mine. My teacher certainly didn’t care, and as I looked around, I had no idea what my peers were doing. Perhaps some were praying, perhaps not.
Thinking back on it now, I realize that was a decisive moment. I could make my own decision. As guided by my individual conscience, I – not some school official or religious leader – was in control of my spiritual life.
Once you get a taste of that, there’s really no going back.
That seems like a basic thing, something all people would want. And it is. Yet we know there are people in America today who have a problem with that concept. After all, too much freedom might lead you to pick the “wrong” religion or to reject them all.
So these people promote official, mandated, compelled prayer in public schools. They demand that government erect and support the symbols of their faith (but not others or non-belief). They labor to subject us all to the rigid moral rules of their own faith.
What they don’t understand is that we in the United States have been given a great gift: the absolute right of conscience resting on a wall of separation between church and state. As much as the Religious Right tries to decouple those two concepts, they remain closely linked. The wall provides essential support to the right of conscience. If the wall collapses, freedom of conscience falls with it.
It is difficult, if not impossible, for true freedom of conscience to exist when the government has a favored faith. If you are constantly reminded by state officials that your religious (or non-religious) beliefs are second class, that they are merely tolerated by the benevolence of those who have accessed real religious truth, you are not free.
At this time of year, when many people are celebrating holidays that involve gift-giving, we should be thankful for the gift of complete freedom of conscience bequeathed to us by our founders. Yes, in some ways it was not theirs to give because it is an inherent human right – but the hard truth is that it’s one that not all nations recognize.
Ours does. And unlike a sweater or an electronic gadget, the fundamental right of conscience never goes out of style or breaks, although it certainly can be eroded.
Enjoy that gift. Treasure it. Use it regularly.
Most importantly, vow to defend it.