Frank Breslin is a retired teacher in New Jersey who taught English, social studies, Latin, and German.

He wrote recently in Church & State magazine about why the Framers of the Constitution wanted separation of church and state. His article reminded me of a Tom Lehrer song in which he sang, “The Catholics hate the Protestants, the Protestants hate the Catholics, and everyone hates the Jews.” Tom Lehrer was a singer, composer, and mathematician who was popular in my college years.

He writes:

We have a long tradition in Am­erica of separation of church and state that prohi­bits government’s promotion of religion on the one hand, and interference with its free exercise on the other.

In their refusal to establish a state church or to favor one religion over another, the Founding Fathers didn’t think that religion was bad but that there was something amiss in human nature, a certain tendency, a will to power and a lust for domination, that always bore watching. It was a virus that lay dormant until its host came to power, whereupon that person or group became suddenly rabid with a mania that sought to convert, punish or persecute anyone not of their fold or persuasion. Paradoxically, the guise under which this malady manifested itself, as the history of Europe made only too plain, was religion.

The Founders thought that religion, something good in itself, could be used toward either good or bad ends, and, unless preventive measures were taken, could induce in the susceptible a madness so malignant and vicious as to destroy the very essence of religion itself. By per­secuting whoever refused to accept their religion or whose lives were deemed insufficiently righteous, those in power could impose a religious tyranny so suffocating in its grip, scope and intensity that one involuntarily thinks of barbed wire and concentration camps.

Various theories have tried to account for this bizarre aberration – the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the ascent of man from beasts, innate human depravity, the Freudian “id,” defective genes or bad social engineering.

But more important than those theories themselves is the lesson to be drawn from those institutions that promise heaven on earth. Given the weak human vessels in which this religious feeling resides, even this noble sentiment could become tragically twisted and unleash on the world unspeakable horror. Immanuel Kant’s words come to mind when considering such would-be utopians and their spiritual gulags: “Nothing was ever made straight with the crooked timber of humanity.”

In government, the need for transparency, accountability and investigative journalists – assuming they haven’t been censored, ban­­ned, imprisoned or shot – is not a casual suggestion, but the sine qua non for maintaining even a pretense of institutional integrity. Human nature is self-contradictory and prone to temptation, especially when the camera’s not running or the press isn’t present. And, no matter the institution, it’s always wise to audit the books – both the official ones and the real ones hidden in the back-office safe.

Politicians, as the saying goes, campaign in poetry but govern in prose, so that we had better distrust whatever they’re saying and doing by an ironclad system of checks and balances, fact-checking and vigilant oversight. As soon as they pass a law, they’ll invite a lobbyist to insert a loophole, recalling Juvenal’s admonition, “Who shall guard the guards themselves?”

Even religion can be dragged in the mire by persecuting those of another faith or of no faith at all until, weakened by torture, the unfortunates would end their suffering by conversion or death. So, to prevent these abuses of power as had occurred in Old Europe when Catholics persecuted Protestants, Protestants persecuted Catholics, Protestants persecuted other Protestants and both Protestants and Catholics persecuted the Jews, the Founders erected a “wall of separation” between church and state as a safeguard against such outrages.

They wanted to put an end to intolerance, bigotry and sadism that wore the flattering garb of religion and spoke in the sanctimonious accents of self-promotion. They believed that what they were doing was ushering something new into this world, novus ordo seculorum or “a new order of the ages” (see the back of a one-dollar bill). America was to be a radically new experiment in government which, like ancient Athens, would show the world that free men had no need of princes and kings but could govern themselves. No wonder the royal courts of Europe hoped this fledgling experiment wouldn’t succeed lest the contagion of democracy spread to their people.

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