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Should Government be God's Work?

On September 11, 2001, America was attacked. The attackers, we soon discovered, were Islamic fundamentalists, people who were imbued with religion and absolutely sure, to the point of sacrificing their lives, that they were doing God's bidding.

God's bidding, in this case, concerned not only how they should lead their own lives, but how other people should lead theirs. Islamic fundamentalists want all people to follow the laws of Islam, as they interpret them, and they are quite willing to force nonbelievers to do things their way. To see how this works, one need only examine Afghanistan as it was three years ago, under the Taliban. No music, no entertainment, no school or jobs for females, no fun, no thinking.

This is the ugly face of government mixed with religion. Almost all Americans supported our government as it removed the Taliban to make way for a new government, which, if it ever takes hold, will be a far more open society.

Sooner or later, someone will stick an amendment in that infringes on the way you want to run your life, and you won't like it one bit.

The lesson we should learn is that the proper role of government is to legislate civil and social, but not moral and religious, interactions among its citizens. As soon as the government starts taking moral stands, it is saying, in effect, that one set of standards, mine, is better than another, yours. This is fine as long as you are in the dictating position, but when you find yourself on the receiving end it is suddenly not so attractive.

That is why our country has in its founding documents a separation of church and state. After all, there are Americans who believe that dancing is immoral-shall we prohibit dancing? Drinking? Coffee drinking? Cars? Premarital sex? These are questions for individuals.

People must decide whether their own moral code permits the activity in question. If so, fine, if not, they abstain. They are welcome to teach their children the same standards. They are welcome to disapprove when other people indulge in the activity. They are welcome to believe that God disapproves of the activity, and that God will punish people who do it. What we cannot do, in this civil society, is to undertake God's work and enforce His laws for him.

Why? Because once you do, you open the door for others with different interpretations of God's laws to do the same to you.

Once again, America is under attack by religious zealots, and this time, the enemy is us. The issue? Gay marriage. Why? Because this is an attack on the institution of marriage. How? That is considerably less clear. No one has yet explained how a gay couple getting married in Massachusetts makes their own marriage in Kentucky somehow less sacred.

Are they suddenly more likely to commit adultery? Get divorced? God forbid, go out and have gay sex? What, precisely, will be the terrible consequence of gay people getting married? No one can say. But they sure as heck want to prevent it. They want a Constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage. They want this in the Constitution! In the very document that mandates a separation of church and state, they want to include a definition of marriage so that other people will not behave in a way that they (the pro-amendment people) believe is immoral.

Two points about this. First, I assure you, this is the tip of the iceberg. The moment something like this gets into the constitution, there will be another group demanding another moral definition in the constitution. What will it be? Maybe a prohibition of abortion. Maybe a requirement to say prayers in public schools. Who will pick them? What if you don't like them? Sooner or later, someone will stick an amendment in that infringes on the way you want to run your life, and you won't like it one bit.

Second, about the institution of marriage. Yes, it is certainly under attack, but not by homosexuals who want to get married. The institution is a tattered remnant of what most people believe it should be, and most of the damage has been done by heterosexuals.

Not one homosexual couple has gotten married in Las Vegas, only to have it annulled hours later, while still claiming 1) that they were not drunk, and 2) they believe totally in the sanctity of marriage. That bastion of conservatism, that upholder of family values, Fox TV, airs contests designed to see which married couple can be enticed into adultery first, and they encourage people to get married (on the air, if possible) on the basis of fake romances carried out with hardly a moment alone with each other (except to have sex, of course). Who is blowing apart this institution?

Not homosexual people who want to make commitments to each other.

David Reingold is a professor of chemistry at Juniata College.