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Iraq, Too, Must Separate Church and State

by Robert Widen on Dec 13, 2003

A new birth of freedom can be a blessed event, but it’s painful. In 1831, when Gustave de Beaumont and I left France to visit the United States to examine first hand this interesting experiment in democracy, Americans had yet to experience their most excruciating moment of freedom’s birth, the Civil War.

Yet they had already surmounted the major obstacle facing you. They embedded the separation of church and state in the Bill of Rights they added to the new U.S. Constitution. Within the United States, there are Christian Fundamentalists who would like to remove this barrier to tyranny. If they succeed, the continued intellectual and material progress of the United States would be impeded, just as mixing Church and State has impeded progress in the Arab world.

Among you there are those who love power and money more than they love their country, as, alas, there are in my France and the United States. If those people fail to subordinate the love of power and money to the love of country, Iraq will not develop a working democracy.

One of the chief reasons Saddam Hussein was able to maintain his political and military tyranny over you because the continued sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites within your great community of Islam weakened the entire civic and social fabric of your country.

Your disagreement over the legitimate descent of authority from Muhammad seems of little importance alongside the your much broader agreement on the teachings of the Koran, the Muslim bible revealed by God to the prophet Muhammad.

The solution of the United States to the sectarian conflicts that it suffered in the founding era is worth considering. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, and James Madison, chief architect of the Constitution, worked individually and in concert from 1776 through 1786 to prevent the Virginia legislature from establishing the Episcopal church, which had enjoyed privileges during the colonial era as the Church of England.

Both men were determined to prevent a continuation of this form of religious tyranny, so injurious to the Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists and nonbelievers in their midst, from becoming part of the federal Constitution. They firmly believed that political freedom could be sustained only in the presence of religious freedom.

Jefferson wrote that he had “sworn, on the altar of God, eternal hostility to any form of tyranny over the mind of man.” He was convinced that the marriage of Church and State was only a step away from creating the age-old triad of king, priests and nobles.

Beyond the issue of religious freedom, what impressed Beaumont and me about the Americans was their capacity to unite in dealing with a common problem. The expectation that patriarchal authority will solve community problems has been a hindrance to effective action in the Arab World.

When I wrote about the United States in my book, “Democracy in America,” I recognized that the world was tending toward “equality of condition,” but that it depended upon the people themselves “whether the principle of equality is to lead them to freedom or servitude, to knowledge or barbarism, to prosperity or wretchedness.”

Look. Democracy is the government form legitimized by both the consent and participation of the people, but it depends upon tolerance in a world filled with different religious convictions. People must build pluralism into their society. Pluralism balances the competing interests of society and prevents the concentration of power in the hands of a few. It takes time. Americans know that. They are continually asking themselves, “How do we make democracy work the way it should?”

The American army can’t create democracy for you. It has to be created by all of you working in Common Cause. Your constitution need not be perfect. You can change it over time as the Americans have with their many amendments.

Neither Saddam Hussein nor Muhammad is around to tell you what to do. Allah helps those who help themselves. There is no escape from freedom except going back into the hell most of you found intolerable.

So, People of Iraq, get on with it.

Robert Widen is an instructor in American History and U.S. Government with Central Texas College's Navy PACE program and a writer for the History News Service.