Church and State

I delivered the following talk on the separation of church and state at Denver’s Liberty Toastmasters on April 3. Obviously neither the national nor the local group sanctioned or endorsed the content of my talk. In six minutes I could touch on only a few of the key points, not delve deeply into the matter. I found Onkar Ghate’s longer lecture on the topic quite helpful, though of course I do not claim his approval for my handling of it.



Ari April 6, 2010 at 3:16 PM

“Greg” left the following comment, but for some reason Google gave me an error message when I tried to post it. Here it is, unedited. My reply will follow in a subsequent comment.

Greg has left a new comment on your post “Church and State”:

I was completely agreeing with you until you talked the separation of church implying that you can’t outlaw sexual behavior such as homosexuality, because this law would have a religious basis. I’m not advocating outlawing homosexual behavior. But if you follow your logic, you would not be able to outlaw any behavior if the prohibition was supported or encouraged by religious belief. And that just doesn’t work.

Murder, molestation, bribery, rape and an endless number of other laws all have a religious base to them and yet no one would advocate these laws break the separation of church and state. Do you see the problem you have? Thoughts and believes should not be regulated on any topic, but behavior has always been regulated by government. What you are arguing is that behavior can be regulated as long as the law isn’t influenced by religious thought? That makes no sense.

If the government has no right to outlaw homosexual behavior, then it has no right outlawing molestation. If the government has no right to outlaw abortion, then it has no right to outlaw infanticide. If religious people don’t have a right to advocate for laws against certain behavior because of their religious beliefs, then Christian Pastor Dr. Martin Luther King had no right to advocate for civil rights for African Americans.

Now even though I’m a Christian, I would not advocate making a law regarding everything my faith condemns. So you might ask, “How do you decide what laws to advocate for because of your faith and what freedom should be left up to the individual?” That is a great discussion question, but is another topic all together. I’m only saying that the separation of church and state has nothing to do with what behaviors the state decided to regulate. Separation of the State is all about regulating belief not behavior.

I would be interested in your thoughts.

Ari April 6, 2010 at 3:36 PM


You make an interesting argument (one I’ve heard, and addressed, before). However, you are quite wrong. Your basic mistake is to confuse incidental religious support for some law with a purely sectarian case for a law.

One need not be a Christian to hold that “murder, molestation, bribery, rape” and so on are immoral and should be illegal. Quite properly those things are declared immoral by a secular philosophy based on reason and individual rights (see Ayn Rand). On the other hand, many Christians have in fact openly endorsed murder, as with the slaughter of “witches” and heretics.

The fact that the Ten Commandments happens to prohibit murder doesn’t mean the Ten Commandments is the foundation for laws against murder. After all, we don’t criminalize worshipping other Gods or dishonoring one’s parents, which the Ten Commandments also prohibits.

The view that homosexuality is immoral and possibly should be criminalized comes mainly from Old Testament bigotry as transmitted to modern times via Paul. (Islamic regions routinely murder homosexuals.)

There is a sound secular case for outlawing murder. There is no such case for outlawing homosexual acts among consenting adults.

My point stands. Government should never impose narrowly sectarian beliefs by force of law. If religious sectarians happen to endorse a law that protects individual rights, that is not a reason to oppose the law, and neither is it a reason to support it. The law is objectively good or bad quite apart from what any religious sect happens to say about it.

Thanks, -Ari

Greg April 6, 2010 at 5:27 PM

This is a very important discussion that hardly ever happens, so I’m glad you brought this topic up.

We can have a debate about what morality is, how it is determined and what the Bible teaches and doesn’t teach, but I want to stay on topic.

We are talking about the separation of church and state and what the Constitution says about the role of religion in government. I believe you are arguing that the U.S. Constitution does not allow religious people to advocate for laws against behavior if they are motivated only by sectarian religious beliefs.

I understand that is what you believe, but where is that spelled out in the Constitution?

First how do you define a sectarian belief and who is the judge? I don’t want to put government in charge of making that decision. I don’t want to put you in charge of that definition either. You know why, because I bet you will say all your beliefs are logical and based on reason and my are sectarian.

In our society we decide what behavior is outlawed by the vote of the people. That’s the meaning of freedom and liberty. Now of course the Constitution has certain protections for specific individual rights. But I do not see a provision in the Constitution protecting people from laws motivated my sectarian beliefs. If I have missed it, please let me know.

What you are really saying is that government should never impose rules on society that are based on a religious philosophy of life. And I bet you believe this because you don’t base your beliefs on religion. I would also assume you believe that abortion should be legal and that our laws should give homosexual behavior the same respect as heterosexual behavior. And I’m fine with you arguing that and advocating this. That is your constitutional right.

But you are arguing that religion people don’t have the same Constitutional rights as you because their beliefs are sectarian in nature.

What happened your advocacy for freedom of thought? What other philosophy of life do you think the Constitution outlaws from having an influence on our laws? Do you see what you are doing? You have become the tyrant that you fear.

It’s fine to disagree with how religious people come to a conclusion that some behavior should be illegal. But you are arguing that the Constitution prevents religious people from being part of the law making process.

I thought you were a liberty loving sort of guy. Sounds like you are liberty loving only as long as people adhere to your philosophy of life.

Ari April 6, 2010 at 5:53 PM

Greg, I have to believe that you didn’t actually listen to my speech, for in my speech I state very clearly that theists have the same rights of free expression as everybody else. It frankly irritates me that you have willfully misrepresented my stated position, and I will refrain from posting any additional comments from you so distort my views.

Consider a comparison. Does a socialist have the right to advocate socialism? Yes. Does a neo-Nazi have the right to advocate a racist legal order? Yes. Does a Christian have the right to advocate abortion bans? Yes. But there is a critical difference between advocating some idea and forcibly imposing some set of constraints through government legislation.

Nobody can have the right to violate individual rights. Advocating an idea cannot be in violation of individual rights. Imposing an unjust law certainly does violate individual rights.

Obviously the First Amendment limits the intersection of government and religion, and the Ninth Amendment mentions other rights “retained by the people.” But I am not claiming that the Constitution absolutely forbids all faith-based legislation; I’m saying that a proper legal system will do so.

Again, I am happy to pursue sincere debate. I am not going to wast my time arguing with those who insist on misrepresenting my views and attacking straw men.

Thanks, -Ari

Greg April 6, 2010 at 9:40 PM


I read back through my last post, written obviously too quickly. I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to say you believe religious people don’t have freedom of speech rights. I realize what I wrote said that. Please let me correct my mistake.

Here is what I think you are saying: Thomas Jefferson’s separation of church and state principle enshrined in the Constitution allows religiously motivated citizens to advocate for faith-based laws, but if they pass, these laws should be declared unconstitutional. Did I get that right?

So if someone advocates to make abortion illegal, that’s okay, but the law they are advocating for is illegal because the Constitution doesn’t allow “purely sectarian” motivated laws.

If I’m still misrepresenting you please let me know. Here is main point. I think it is tyrannical to say laws in the country are only legitimate if they are based on secular philosophy and that laws based on a religious philosophy are unconstitutional. This is an arbitrary and abusive use of power.

A society should be able to choose by majority vote the laws they want to be governed by and not be told a law is only legitimate if it is based on a particular view of the world.

This is what I believe you are advocating. If I’m wrong, please correct me.


advocate for laws against behavior if they are motivated only by sectarian religious beliefs.

Ari April 6, 2010 at 11:00 PM


You raise some useful points. I think you’re continuing to make a couple of important mistakes.

1. You’re wrongly drawing the line between “religious” and “secular.” “Secular” certainly is not synonymous with pro-liberty, as the Marxists have amply demonstrated. Various secularists, to take another example, advocate laws restricting the freedom of speech.

“Secular” means simply non-religious. Thus, secularism per se has nothing to say about the proper function of government or the nature of rights. My moral and political philosophy happens to be secular, but secularism is not what makes it distinctive.

Rather, I am arguing here against the forced imposition of sectarian beliefs. Nonsectarian does not necessarily mean secular. Many religious people endorse a rights-respecting government, and I have no (political) conflict with them. I do believe that ultimately rights must be grounded in objective reality, not religion, but many theists and atheists remain deeply confused about the nature of rights (and that topic is far too broad for an exchange of blog comments).

Again, I am discussing a proper legal system, not necessarily our current system. Obviously the courts have allowed all sorts of sectarian beliefs to be imposed by law, as manifest by blue laws, faith-based welfare, criminal penalties on homosexuality and abortion, and so on.

2. The fact that you invoke majority vote should indicate to you that you’ve run into a problem. Do you think the majority has the right to do the following?

* Enslave some minority.
* Forbid women from obtaining an education, showing their faces in public, or visiting privately with unrelated men?
* Impose the death penalty on homosexuals and heretics?

Pure democracy IS the tyranny of the majority. I advocate instead individual rights. Tyranny means the systematic violation of individual rights. Thus, everything I advocate in politics is at war with tyranny. It cannot possibly be tyrannical to advocate laws protecting individual rights, contrary to your suggestion. It is, however, tyrannical to impose any law that violates individual rights, including such laws that arise from sectarian beliefs.

Notice something implicit in your argument: religious faith in the political sphere must devolve to interest warfare (i.e., some segment of society lording it over others). That is because sectarian beliefs rest on faith, not evidence. Individual rights must rest on the objective facts of human nature, and thus are open to verification by all. Faith attempts to bypass reason. The only alternative to reason in human affairs is force, as Rand eloquently argued.

Thanks, -Ari

Greg April 7, 2010 at 3:27 PM
I know this debate could go on and on, but I wanted to comment on a few things you said in your last post.

I used the term “secular philosophy” because that is the term you used to describe the proper philosophy that should used when deciding what our laws are. Maybe you are more comfortable with the term “nonsectarian”. That’s fine. The point is that you think certain laws should be automatically out of bounds just because of the philosophy behind them. I just don’t see that in the Constitution and if it was there, this concept is ripe for abuse.

You will have to admit, it is going to be hard to decide what laws are sectarian and which are non-sectarian. What if the two perspectives over lap, then what? Whoever is in charge of deciding this will have incredible power.

I would also argue there are many great religious arguments for a rights-respecting government. Actually the Thomas Jefferson based our unalienable rights not on a non-sectarian philosophy, but a religious one. We have rights that government should not take away, because we are created by God.

How do you reconcile the Declaration of Independence with your belief that our laws must be based on a non-sectarian philosophy? If you are going to be consistent, you need to view the Declaration itself as a violation of the separation of church and state.

Regarding the majority vote: I’m not advocating that the majority should be able to do whatever they want to the minority. But minority rights need to be specifically spelled out in the Constitution. And I don’t find a blanket right in the Constitution protecting people from laws motivated sectarian views.

On occasion you seem to argue for your view, not based on the U.S. Constitution, but on how you would like to see things done. But since you brought up the separation of church and state and Thomas Jefferson, I thought you were using the Constitution to support your view. I was a bit confused on that point.

I understand you are very protective of individual rights. Yet, how do you decide what these individual rights are and who gets them. From my perspective you seem very selective in who you give them to.

One of the most basic individual rights we have is the right not to be harmed by others, without due process. Yet you don’t think the government has a responsibility to protect the unborn from harm.

One last point about reason, faith, and religion. When you say religion rests on faith, you mean blind belief in something, even if the evidence contradicts it. That is not how I treat my Christian faith. I’m a Christian because it gives the best explanation of why things are the way they are. In short I’m a Christian because of the evidence that it is objectively true. Yes, faith and trust are involved. But it is a reasonable faith based on the historical evidence and reason. If you could prove Jesus never existed or never rose from the dead, Christianity would fall apart.

Now I know this this a huge decision and I’m sure you are ready to come at me with all kinds of objections. Just make sure you are asking the same hard questions about the faith you put in Rand and your own philosophy. No one is all knowing or infallible. We all live by “faith” to some degree or other.

Best regards,


Ari April 7, 2010 at 4:37 PM


This discussion is growing tedious, and so the above is the last comment of yours I’ll post on the matter.

You continue to fundamentally miss the boat regarding my basic position.

I have never argued, nor do I believe, that a just law must have solely non-religious support. Rather, I have argued that a law must not forcibly impose strictly sectarian beliefs. If you cannot see the difference, then you suffer from willful blindness.

So, for example, the Declaration of Independence states that a(n unspecified) “Creator” endowed us with rights. Well, that is wrong, as there simply is no Creator (unless we want to lend that term to natural law). But do we need to invoke a Creator to get rights? No, we do not. (Again see Ayn Rand.) Therefore, the Declaration’s invocation of rights is not sectarian. That is, even if the claim about the Creator falls (as it does), the claim about rights stands.

Many religious people have argued that God forbids slavery (despite Biblical passages to the contrary). But do we need a religious argument to ban slavery? No, we do not. Therefore, abolition is not a fundamentally sectarian issue.

On the other hand, the view that a zygote is the moral and legal equivalent of a born infant arises only on the basis of religious faith. Therefore, laws that forcibly prevent women from harming a zygote violate the separation of church and state.

(You indicate that the “unborn” have rights, but individual rights apply only to individual persons, not zygotes. For more see )

Regarding the Constitution, I believe that the logical conclusion of the First Amendment is, as Jefferson indicates, to establish the complete separation of church and state. However, obviously it does not today actually achieve any such separation, as the laws previously cited indicate. Regardless of the current state of the law, a just legal order consistently protects individual rights, which implies, in part, that it forbids the forcible imposition of strictly sectarian beliefs.

Regarding religious faith, you make a fundamental error in demanding a disproof of religious views. The onus of proof requires that the one making an assertion positively prove his case. That is, you have to prove that Jesus is divine (which means that you have to prove a supernatural realm exists and that the Christian God exists). Yet, contrary to your assertion, Christianity is built on arbitrary claims, blind faith, and patent absurdities.

As to your claim that “we all live by ‘faith’,” that’s hogwash. Faith means unjustified belief. Grounding one’s beliefs on the evidence is the opposite of faith.

Thanks, -Ari