The Power of Importance

American Heritage Essay

EDITOR'S NOTE: The 2007 American Heritage Scholarship Series essay contest was won by Kellie Courtney, a senior at Johansen High School. Her essay was chosen from among 268 entries submitted by juniors and seniors at 15 schools in Stanislaus County. A panel of educators and community members read all of the essays, selecting the best 19. The top 10 winners were chosen by several Stanislaus County Superior Court judges. As first-place winner, Courtney will receive a $2,000 scholarship. The full list of winners will appear in next week's Buzzz. Here is an excerpt from Courtney's essay.

Americans have a history of freedom and a desire to protect that freedom at any expense. It was not until these freedoms were guaranteed in the Bill of Rights that the Constitution was ratified and America's laws were created. Among the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment is what is termed "freedom of religion," a common cause of controversy. This is supported by two seemingly contradictory clauses. The Establishment Clause -- "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" -- has provided for the creation of a religiously diverse population by preventing a government-sponsored church. The Free Exercise Clause -- "or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" -- is responsible for the high percentage of religious participation. Still this balance ignites controversy. Some Americans argue that they are denied the right to practice their beliefs while others argue that religion's invasion into politics is against the policy of separation of church and state. While religion and politics are theoretically separate realms, American culture has religious ties that politics cannot justly ignore.

History has long ignored this "wall of separation between church and state" to which Thomas Jefferson alluded (Jefferson). In the words of Dr. Stephen Prothero, separation of church and state in America is more of a "picket fence" than a wall (Prothero). However, this distinction between secular and religious power as well as leaders is necessary to trace the power struggles of western society that brought the United States to where it is today. Kings, presidents, and politicians are secular leaders, deriving their purpose and their power from the people that they represent. Popes, pastors, even today's Evangelical leaders are religious leaders, deriving their purpose and their mission from a higher power. When viewed in this manner, there is no conflict of authority. Religion itself even approves of this distinction as in Christ's instructions to "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Luke 20:25). Leaders and their ideas are respected in their separate realms, but history has shown controversy when either tries to cross the "picket fence" between powers.

Experience shows that religious leaders taking political power stems often from corruption and leads to abuse of power, prompting in part the inclusion of the Constitution's Establishment Clause. ...

Since political leaders have power derived from the people, they must in some way look to the people to maintain the balance of power between spiritual and secular. For this reason, history has shown that political leaders' acknowledgment of religion leads to equality in government and a sense of community for their people. In the United States, political change toward equality has come when politicians looked toward religion to find the pulse of America. The abolition movement gained power and many people received freedom from people acting on religious beliefs. The women's suffrage movement was promoted by religious influences. The Civil Rights movement that brought equal treatment to all Americans regardless of race was spearheaded by churches and religious organization such as Dr. Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (LaFayette 2-8).

In all of these cases, politicians acknowledged social needs already being voiced by religious groups and through this acknowledgment were able to address the problem. Experiments today in areas such as President Bush's faith-based initiatives aim for similar goals. The philosophy is that excluding groups from giving aid to other simply because of the group's religious ties is not a practical or responsible way to take care of people in need. If the population has strong religious ties and the government derives its power and importance from the people, then it follows naturally that the government's acknowledgment of religion's importance will lead to more effective government.

With two opposite sides and strong proponents of opposite solution, American politics must continually search for a middle line. Like political power, this line must be dictated by the people. This is not easily accomplished, as the solution must take into account a wide range of fickle human opinions as well as inconsistent poll results. Public opinion and support of religion's influence in politics has changed over the last forty years. No single principle or test has consistently been approved by a majority of the Supreme Court

(Witte 2). ...

Religion has had a historical impact on America and American culture, but not without conflict. If government can acknowledge religion as an authority with power separate from its own, then it can accept religion's positive impact on American culture and can pass laws in that context.