The Capitol Hill building features one of the greatest monuments of art, which is the fresco of Apotheosis of George Washington. It was created by Constantino Brumidi in 1865, to commemorate the end of the Civil War and the foundation of the USA as a free and independent state (Muscato). The word Apotheosis translates from ancient Greek as deification, the process of becoming a God (Muscato).
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Of course, George Washington never had the ambition of Roman Emperors, and the symbolism in the fresco seeks to highlight the importance of his role in the eyes of the American people. At the same time, the apparent deification of a political leader raises questions about one of the pillars upon which the USA has been built, which is the separation of religion and state. The purpose of this paper is to investigate the history of the secularization of the state in the USA and explain why this separation is required for a healthy democracy to function.
Separation of Church and State in the USA
The concept of this division was coined by Thomas Jefferson and later put into action as part of the First Amendment, namely the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause (Sorauf 25). The reason why there is a proverbial wall between religion and state is to protect both from influencing one another. For a great period of time in history, the Church and the State were inseparable. The Church supported the divinity of the existing monarchies by claiming various kings and rulers to be chosen by Heaven. In exchange, the government looked upon the Church favorably. It received lands and riches, becoming one of the wealthiest property owners.
Since the USA was built upon the principles of democracy and freedom, it could not support such a corrupt alliance between the legislative and religious branches of the society (Sorauf 37). Just as the Church has the potential to influence the government in a negative way, the government has the potential to impose its own religious views on others. Without the separation of Church and state, individuals could be barred from public office based on the religious views of the majority (Lankford and Moore). At the same time, the government could impose restrictions or even completely outlaw “unfavorable” religious-based on political circumstance. Religious purges in Europe throughout its ancient and medieval history were motivated by such means.
The separation of Church and State was upheld by the Supreme Court in more than 15 cases, some of which are relatively controversial in nature, due to the Confrontation Clause. One of the best examples of separation of Church and state in the Supreme Court is the McCollum vs. Board of Education Dist. 71 case of 1948, which established that religious instruction in public schools was in the violation of Establishment Clause and therefore was unconstitutional (“U.S. Supreme Court Decisions”). Overall, current practices of the First Amendment sustain that civic laws have priority over religious laws.
Conclusions: Can the Church and State Coexist?
In a democratic society, the Church and state cannot coexist within the same legal framework, because of the inherent similarities and differences of both. Religion served as a basis for the first laws to ever be created by human societies. The scriptures represent some of the most basic and fundamental laws, upon which the societies are built (Sorauf 50). However, they can work only in small and homogeneous societies, where everyone practices the same religion. The USA is a multinational and multi-confessional country. Establishing one religion in the position of legal power will inevitably come at the cost of oppressing everyone else. Oppression of any kind is unacceptable in a healthy democratic state. Therefore, religion and state must be kept separate one from another.
Lankford, James, and Russell Moore. “The Real Meaning of the Separation of Church and State.” Time. 2018. Web.
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Muscato, Cristopher. “The Apotheosis of George Washington: Symbolism and Analysis.” Study.com. Web.
Sorauf, Frank Joseph. The Wall of Separation: The Constitutional Politics of Church and State. Princeton University Press, 2015.
“U.S. Supreme Court Decisions.” The Secular Web. Web.