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Separation of church and state is profoundly wise

'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"

First amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, 1791

The constitutional separation of church and state has shown a timeless wisdom. The United States, a country originally founded by members of the same Protestant and Catholic faiths that were slaughtering each other in religiously inspired wars and burning each other at stakes in Europe for holding perceived heretical views, declared itself a country where religious liberty would be protected, and where neither religious persecution nor religious interference in civic matters would be tolerated.

Was this "wall of separation" good for the American Republic? It would seem so. Secular, religiously tolerant democratic government was virtually unknown at this time in Europe, and soon millions were fleeing the established, theocratic monarchies of that continent to make new lives in the new American Republic, which grew from a scattered set of colonies to become the dominant nation on the globe. Meanwhile, the confessional states of Europe stagnated, ultimately depending on a very un-Christian form of colonial exploitation to revive their own economies.

Was this separation also good for religion in America? The answer is a resounding "yes". As judged by regular religious attendance, the United States is one of the most devout of the developed nations, with a far higher rate of church-going than is found in Spain, France, Germany, England or Scotland, and with a similar level as Italy, the self-same countries whose theocracies the emigrants fled.

The conclusion seems inescapable. Religion and politics are like sheep and cattle. They shouldn't mix. Jesus Christ himself admitted as much when he admonished his followers to "give unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's and to God the things which are God's"

Yet the message isn't as yet universally accepted. The Middle East is replete with repressive theocracies, states where women are oppressed, where homosexuality can result in execution, and where an unmarried couple having coffee together risk being whipped by the police.

A theocracy within our own European heartland also found itself in trouble last week. The United States Diplomatic Service re-served the Vatican with legal papers drawn up by an American lawyer (ironically from St Paul, Minnesota) over allegations that it colluded in the cover-up of clerical sex abuse in a school for the deaf in Milwaukee.

Like a deadbeat dad dropping his hands to his sides when the court messenger appears at the door with the child-support summons, the Vatican had previously simply refused to accept these documents, saying, in the understated words of their spokesman, that they "were undesired and unwanted".

While some may feel that the crimes of a minority are being endlessly resurrected and regurgitated in a deliberate, orchestrated and malfeasant attempt to discredit the majority of decent clerics and the institution itself, the importance of the "wall of separation" is again emphasised. The institutional church, like any other organisation which is comprised of us morally frail humans, tends to acts in its own interests. The very purpose of democracy, and of accountability before the law, is to minimise our human tendency to put self-interest first.

The grudging, sluggish cooperation of the institutional church with abuse enquiries in our own Republic and other states, shows that, although it was founded on some of the greatest principles the world has ever seen and although it has contained within it ranks some of the kindest and most heroic figures in history, it can behave very badly indeed when it believes that it has civic authority.

"Congress shall make no law . . ."

Amen to that.

Professor John Crown is a consultant oncologist and is a candidate for the Seanad on the NUI panel. www.johnCrown.ie; Facebook John Crown for Seanad; Twitter: ProfJohnCrown

Sunday Independent