Recent events in Egypt are perilous for the infant democracy. They also are a reminder of the wisdom America’s Founding Fathers demonstrated in trying to keep religion and government separate.
Two years after a popular revolt resulted in the ouster of a secular dictator, the military stepped in to remove Egypt’s elected President Mohammed Morsi. The military’s action came, at least in part, as a reaction to massive popular protests against Morsi’s government.
Morsi was a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.
While most Egyptians are Sunni Muslims, many are not. The protests grew out of a belief that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were using the power of government to impose their religious beliefs.
In most respects, Egypt and the United States have little in common. The Islamic beliefs that are dominant in Egypt are very different than the Christian beliefs that prevail in the United States. Democracy in Egypt is fragile, whereas U.S. democracy has endured for 237 years.
What the nations have in common, though, is a tension between the role of government and religion. The tension was expected by America’s Founding Fathers. People of any faith tend to view their religious beliefs as being of ultimate importance. They sincerely believe their nation would be better off if it conformed to those beliefs. Religious people struggle to resist the temptation of using government as a tool to promote a faith-based agenda.
Succumbing to the temptation never ends well, a fact the Founding Fathers — brilliant students of political history — understood. In the Constitution, they prohibited Congress from passing laws “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Thomas Jefferson described the provision as requiring separation of church and state, a view the courts adopted. Just two decades after its founding and six years after the adoption of the First Amendment, the U.S. Senate ratified a treaty reaffirming the “government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
Egypt’s turmoil demonstrates the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. While the effort is constantly difficult when a majority of the people in a democracy subscribe to the same faith, government should not be used as a tool for religion. Both institutions suffer from the combination.
Much political acrimony in the United States today arises from this tension. Some Christians, certain they have absolute truth on their side, seek to use government as a tool to impose their biblical views on others. Whether the issue is homosexuality or abortion, tax support of religious schools or foreign relations with non-Christian nations, the friction is constant and damaging.
The issue is not whether Christian beliefs are right or wrong, but whether government is the proper institution to promote them.
Maintaining a secular government in a democracy is difficult when a popular majority subscribes to a single faith. The Founding Fathers thought it was worth the effort, and the crisis in Egypt is a reminder of their wisdom.