Religion, politics and culture


Believing that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his G-d … that the
legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with
sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared their Legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,"
                        thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.  "

--Thomas Jefferson

Sixteen years ago, my home state of Colorado became the "hate state" when it passed a constitutional amendment that essentially condoned discrimination against gays. I was in college in New Mexico at the time, and during a discussion of the Constitution, my professor said the Colorado amendment was an example of a state expressing its culture without interference from people in Washington. Some of the students responded that Colorado's culture must be perverted, because it was attacking equality and rights. This fall, Californians are having a similar debate as they prepare to vote on Proposition 8, which would amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage.

In both cases, there's plenty to be disturbed about. When such laws pass, they erode equality and codify bigotry. Something bigger and more sinister looms over such battles, however, and it is conspicuously absent from public discourse: The increasing encroachment of religion into politics and culture. These anti-gay initiatives seek to force a specific religious doctrine on the populace as a whole, and that's something that should worry us all.

That's not to say that religion and politics and culture can or should be entirely separate from one another. The wall between church and state always has been and always will be somewhat permeable. Religion has inspired great works of art over the centuries, and it strongly motivated the abolitionist and civil rights movements. The original Ten Commandments were as much a political manifesto as religious guide; today, we base part of our society's moral structure on commandments five through ten.

It can get scary, however, when the first few commandments invade politics. Those are the ones that hold one particular religion above all others and seek to punish those who do not do so. That's fine for those who choose to follow that particular religion, but it's not OK for the rest of us. It imprisons the populace as a whole behind the strict moral boundaries of a handful of institutions. And that does more than rob us of our freedom of -- and from -- religion; it robs us of our freedom in general.

That's exactly what these anti-gay initiatives threaten to do. And that's where my professor of long ago, who called the Colorado initiative an expression of culture, went wrong: The initiative, rather than expressing culture as he suggested, squashed it, because here in the West our culture is based more on independence and freedom than on any particular religion. Indeed, Westerners and Americans as a whole have our own version of the Ten Commandments. It's called the U.S. Constitution, and it guarantees freedom from the moral impositions being thrust upon us now by these bigoted laws. 

When religion remains where it belongs -- in the churches and the home -- it is an important part of the diversity and ripeness of culture. Once it begins to dominate politics, however, it begins to stifle that same culture. Out here in the West, where we hold freedom dear, we should be especially vigilant in fighting against that.

And to those who want to erode the rights of others with anti-gay initiatives, or dynamite the wall that protects both church and state from each other, I offer a caution: The freedom, tolerance and diversity that you seek to extinguish is powerful. Like bindweed springing from the cracks in cement, it will always re-emerge. Just take a look at Idaho Falls, Idaho, where Ray Ring takes us in this issue's cover story: In spite of the Mormon Church's best efforts, a dynamic gay and lesbian culture has rooted there, and is thriving.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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