Shouldn't conservatives want to keep government out of religion?

by John MacBeath Watkins

Via Steve Benen, we find this Newt Gingrich quote from the Thanksgiving Family Forum:

“A country that has been now since 1963 relentlessly in the courts driving God out of public life shouldn’t be surprised at all the problems we have,” the thrice-married, serial adulterer said. “Because we’ve in fact attempted to create a secular country, which I think is frankly a nightmare.”
Since when was the government the same as the country? And shouldn't conservatives, who want the government out of everything else, want it out of religion? After all, once you've got religion in government, you've got government in religion.

We live in arguably the least secular of the developed countries, and that is not a coincidence. Countries with established churches, such as England, where the Church of England is the official national religion, tend not to take religion very seriously, and those English who do take religion seriously tend not to belong to the C of E.

My grandfather, Amos Watkins, was an Evangelical Christian, and during the 1930s, when my father was in school at Laurel, Ore., he was the president of the school board. Did he insist that the school promote Christianity?

Of course not. It wasn't the school's business. What people are forced to do, they tend to rebel against, in any case. Amos and Lily Watkins raised four children, all devout Christians. My uncle Steve became an Evangelical minister, my aunt Jean married a Seventh Day Adventist missionary. My uncle Ted is a lay leader in his church, and my late father was active in the Episcopal Church.

All that, with no religious observance in school. That's because the home and the church were doing their job, passing on the traditional beliefs, and the government was staying out of the way so that they could.

Not everyone in my father's community was Christian, by the way, His best friend growing up in the 1920s and '30s was Kenji Inahara, and Kenji's parents, like many Japanese immigrants, had images of their gods on the mantle. But a couple hundred years ago, the founding fathers decided that the way to deal with religion was to keep the government out of it, so they were free to worship their gods.

After all, many immigrants in the early days came to this country to be free to practice religion as they saw fit. In England at the time, you had to be a member of the Church of England to be an officer in the military or to practice law or hold public office. The founding fathers knew what an established state religion looked like, and wanted no part of it.

They were also familiar with the efforts of the Catholic Church in England to suppress Protestantism, even ordering the strangling of William Tyndale for translating the Bible into English, and the subsequent burning of his remains so that he could not be resurrected on Judgement Day. There is a great book, Fox's Book of Martyrs, that tells the story of the suppression of the English language Bible. I've mentioned it before in this post. It's easy to forget that the practices of established state religions in Europe were once about as oppressive as the practices of modern-day Iran.

Part of the reason our constitution is written to keep the government out of religion was that not everyone who fled the state religion of England and other nations wanted to practice the same religion. One of my ancestors was a Puritan, but got in trouble with his church for giving shelter to Quakers in a storm. He and his family became Quakers.

But while some colonies could be intolerant of those who did not belong to the dominant sect, for us to be a nation, we all had to tolerate those who did not believe as we did.

Some Christians may think taking over the apparatus of state power would help them promote their own religious views, which they are certain are the right ones. But if religion were to take over the government, you'd soon see divisions like those between the colonial Puritans and Quakers, and eventually you'd see many religious people wishing they could get government out of religion.