Public Attitudes toward Church and State

By Ted G. Jelen; Clyde Wilcox | Go to book overview
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The world bears witness to much sectarian religious violence. Bosnia, Northern Ireland, and, of course, the Middle East illustrate the extent and persistence of the problem. In the name of religion people fortify and fight for their beliefs. In the process they impinge on the interests, needs, and rights of others.

Americans, thankfully, have been spared much of this violence. Religious controversy in the United States has occurred primarily within the legal and political system rather than outside it.

Political conflict over religious beliefs is what we would expect in a free society that respects these beliefs but prohibits the antisocial behavior they may sometimes promote. The framers of the American Constitution got it right. Their solution to protecting the nation's rich but diverse religious heritage was to create a system in which religion and religious organizations could flourish but not dominate the social order. The constitutional embodiment of this solution was the First Amendment's establishment and free exercise clauses plus the absence in the document of any religious tests for holding office.

The politics of protecting the free exercise of religion and preventing the establishment of religion have changed over the years as succeeding generations have attempted to redefine constitutional boundaries in a manner that conforms to their beliefs and practices. Today those politics impact on the policy debates over the role of government in society, the parameters of federalism, the dimensions of the welfare state, and the issues of crime, punishment, and due process of law. How far should government go in permitting or preventing religious activities? Should the national government impose standards on the states in the name of basic individual rights? Where should the


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Public Attitudes toward Church and State


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