Can a Secular Nation Ever Exist?

Following the supreme court ruling on gay marriage, it wasn’t too difficult to predict the whole Kim Davis incident. The friction between the religious agenda and secular agenda has been at a special high these last few months, and will likely continue for the coming months. Just for some specific background on the U.S. a poll in 2012 found that while 95% of the nation said they would vote for a female president, only 54% said they would vote for an atheist. Interestingly enough, 91% said they’d vote for a Jewish person, 80% said they’d vote for a Mormon, and 58% would vote for a Muslim.

Early in our American History, many of the immigrants that first came to the new world were religious refugees leaving persecution in Europe, mainly puritans. Considering this it’s obvious why the founding fathers wanted religious freedom for the country because they didn’t want to see a repeat of what happened. To reinforce this, the country was founded on the idea of a secular government – the separation of church and state- so that people would be free to practice whatever religion pleased them.

As we’ve seen recently, the balance between church and state is a tricky one. In the United States, about 70% of the country considers themselves to be Christian, while about 23% are unaffiliated. Now from 2007 to 2014 the number of Christians dropped by around 8%, but this isn’t a very meaningful change considering it is still the large majority.

This is a significant pressure put on politicians to fulfill Christian values. Even if the politician isn’t particularly religious, they still have a huge force that want these values to be carried out. And since we are in a representative democracy, unsurprisingly the vast majority of politicians are Christian. So in theory we do have a secular government, but in practicality not really. The word of god is not often expressly put into law, but the agenda is still pushed through. This is obvious when watching the last Republican debate on Fox, when one of the last questions was about the candidates receiving messages from god.

So it’s quite apparent that the Christian agenda is casually pushed through government, and whenever something that goes against that agenda is passed there is a chaotic uproar. When politicians come out and denounce the courts on the basis of god’s judgement, that is very much not a secular government. And what people tend to forget is that so many claim that the supreme court ruling is religious persecution of Christians, but considering the national statistics on number of Christians that is pretty doubtful. In this case it would really be religious persecution against the gay community, which is exactly why the founding fathers put an emphasis on the idea of a secular government.

After examining how we got into this controversial mess we are in today, what do we do? Well likely the issue will be gone in a few months and people will have something else to yell about, but that doesn’t make the idea of a secular nation any less valuable. Even if somehow every member of congress were unaffiliated, they would still be pressured by the people to fulfill their religious convictions. And don’t think this only applies to Christian values. If we woke up tomorrow and suddenly 70% of the nation followed Hinduism, it wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone if laws and customs were suddenly molded around that religion.

Keeping this in mind the only way to truly have a secular nation is if religion was vastly diminished in that nation. So diminished that politicians would feel virtually no pressure from religious groups to pass on their agenda. Even if many politicians themselves were religious, they couldn’t so easily pass on a religious agenda with a nation that is largely atheist.

An obvious rebuttal is that Christianity and other religions teach honorable values to people. Our laws were very much influenced by religion but that doesn’t make them bad. Just because a law against murder may have been lifted from the bible doesn’t make that law any more alienating. But while this may be true, this isn’t the point. A person’s morality may as well come from a religious doctrine but they can feel very out of place when others don’t accept that doctrine. Morality can obviously develop without religion, and in many cases better than if the person had experienced religion. The laws of the land and the religious doctrine may overlap in many areas but that doesn’t mean that religion should overtake the laws. A Christian’s and an atheist’s morality may be largely the same, but that doesn’t mean that the laws should reflect only the religious morality.

Now obviously if the nation was 100% Christian then the idea of a secular government wouldn’t be that important. But since the United States is not, and in fact the number of Christians is decreasing, that only means that the idea of a secular government is more urgent than before.

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32 thoughts on “Can a Secular Nation Ever Exist?

  1. I think a more interesting question is whether or not even a government comprised completely of say…a decision-making friendly AI with complete executive power, broad-spectrum data mining so it needn’t be dependent on human opinions, and a few human minders to execute its directives and mind LEObots and other mechanical personnel at the local and county levels could avoid having an ideological, rather than a religious basis. Say the AI is completely non-ideological, only driven by data. Kim Davis will still exist a thousand miles out of its reach in the rural Southwest, far from the Booz Allen data center where it’s located. If it cannot perform the entire set of functions required for a world power nation state of 315 million people and half a continent, it will still have to destroy those who turn its directives to suit their own purposes and replace them with compliant human personnel.

    Or, say that the AI is consciously non-ideological but has a healthy inner life. It will begin to structure its utility function, as it revises and updates with new inputs, along something much like a religion. I may say I’m a Christian occultist, but why do ritual when I can watch Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles or Doctor Who? I can’t get up in time for church, not often, but I woke up this morning, as tired and hung over as I was, because I was missing the Cubs-Cardinals game. I have a good portion of my personal spirituality bound up in these last three, Book of Morrmon and daily invocation of my Holy Guardian Angel notwithstanding. Is it out of the question for such an AI to say…base its decision-making process on video narrative records of our culture hero, the Doctor? Would that arguably be a bad decision? I think not, and it wouldn’t violate a human-emplaced hardware directive to avoid historical religions. But that kind of directive is another kettle of fish.

    So it is, then, with humans. Something will always fill that vacuum. Replace 65% of the population with atheists and “What Would Bill Nye Do?” will become the bane of a new generation of secularist analogues. This is not terrible news, if we seek sound government — it simply tells us that government designed to exist in a vacuum is too fragile and inefficient to work properly. Sorry about the long comment lol…it seems natural to me to go this long :p

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  2. So long as there are fear-mongers in your government and in the public at large (not to mention lobbyists), I highly doubt that there will ever be a secular America. I’m Canadian, but have spent years of my life living in rural Southwest Florida, and have traveled the South extensively, and met many people, both religious and non-religious, that simply do not believe “God” and “government” will ever be anything but intertwined. I find this such a shame, because it impedes a true democracy and sows the seeds of fear and discrimination toward other religious groups or those who are not religious. As a Canadian (and a Poli Sci student at the time – three years ago), for me to witness this was mind-blowing. I would refer to it as “Bizarro-World” because it just didn’t seem like it could exist in a civilized society. My favourite was when I saw Pat Robertson on TV with a picture of Karl Marx with devils horns drawn on it. I chortled and thanked whatever gods may be that I do not live in such an odd place.

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  3. As someone interested in religion, politics and political theory, and who has quite a few religious (mostly Christian) friends, I actually think Secularism is possibly more important for religious freedom than people realize. This may sound paradoxical, but if the State is officially “Secular”, this shouldn’t matter to religious people so long as they can openly espouse and live by their theology.
    Interestingly, the God of the Bible (since were talking about Judeo-Christian America) gave humans free will in the book of Genesis, to choose to believe, or not to believe “in Him”….
    Now, its this kind of “free moral agency”, or autonomy, which is arguably the most (or one of the most) critical principle(s) which underpin the Liberal Democratic nation state (in this case America). Ideally, real human autonomy allows individuals to enter into genuine self-realization and the freedom from coercion – which affords them the “pursuit of happiness” (so long as they dont hurt others). Basically, the “trade offs” from a religious stand point is that human autonomy is a double edged sword, you cant force a person to be religious, as that wouldnt be genuine belief, therefore, you have to accept that they might choose to be an atheist and practice things which are contrary to whatever religious statutes….you cant have one without the other, if you want genuine faith, you have to give humans genuine choice! And, according to the Bible (since Christianity is the subject), humans were given a choice right from the beginning (?)….A political environment which is “Secular” is quite consistent with the Judeo-Christian principle of human autonomy. To some extent anyway.

    South Korea is a case in point maybe, as they are a very Christian nation, but the public realm is pretty much secular. Seems to work http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2015/06/633_162414.html

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  4. I agree with your points, but secularism might not be the only need. It would be a little far-fetched to think that religion would disappear or could be suppressed. However, what could be imposed is the belief that your religion and your faith belongs indoors, not in public places or institutions. The resistance, ironically, to that concept comes not from the public but from the politicians who would like to use religion as a weapon or as a tool to garner power. Your god is best served indoors, in your own house, not in some church, temple or other religious structure. The separation of religion and state has never really happened ever. In my own country for example, it was thought to be an ideal that we needed to pursue, but the opposite is true now. I think it will just get worse, not any better.

    The strangest thought I had reading this- Iraq was a truly secular state apparently in the years of Saddam’s tyranny. Suddenly turned religious after he was deposed. What do you think of that?

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    • Sadly I don’t know much about the Iraq conflict, and I don’t know enough about the specific history but this is just speculation. But religion has a history of intensifying social issues. This is why some Muslim countries are more extreme than others. But concerning Sadam, my initial guess would be that he was a strong leader. Typically if the leader is unifying enough the people will be set aside certain differences, and when that leader is removed what do the people have to fall back on? Without that unifying leader the support dissipates and turns to different pockets of belief. Think about the pocket of power that was left after the removal of Bin Laden

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      • Well said!! Yes, quite true.
        However, I am not so sure that the removal of Bin Ladin has left a pocket of power. If anything, there is some confusion in the ranks and quite probably a disintegration of the original group into splinter entities. I don’t really know if that is good or bad.
        What is probably more dangerous and insidious is the proliferation of religious right-wing groups that hold extreme views. It is not limited to any one religion, country or continent.
        Bigotry, prejudice, racism, intolerance are all growing once more. In a way, almost like the situation at the turn of the last century. One wonders if this would lead once more to global conflict, but this time not between nations, but between races/people/religions and regions.

        Thank you for replying, appreciate it.

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    • Interesting comments bro….Dont wanna contradict you, however, the Iraqi population was already strongly religious under Sadam. But also before he took the reigns of the Ba’athist regime.

      Sadam implemented many pro-Islamic policies which reinforced Islam in the region.

      While Iraq’s ideology was officially “Secular” and Socialist, for much of the 20th century, this was probably a ploy to be allied to the Soviet union during the cold war – as Syria, Egypt and Iraq were Socialist to varying degrees and wanted to maintain strong ties to the Soviet Union which was right next door to Syria and Iraq.
      This was because, before 1990, Middle Eastern politicians thought the USSR was going to be the next world super-power – That belief was widespread among politicians the world over…..

      Ultimately, Sadam was very ambitious to promote and establish a solid Pan Arab Nationalist programme in the Middle East (M.E), and this was more easily acheived and realized through a shared religious identity (as most Arabs were muslims) and a good relationship with the USSR. Arabs were/are suspicious of England meddling in the M.E and were really pissed at the creation of the modern Israeli State backed by the US.

      Sadam was a really a pragmatist, what he believed is subject to speculation. But his regime seemed to be an ideological cocktail. And certainly promoted Islam for pan-Arabist ends.

      sorry for the big rant…..

      Liked by 1 person

      • Quite true, not a rant at all 🙂 and kia ora 🙂

        While what you say is true, about Saddam being a pragmatist as well as an opportunist, the experience of expats living there following other religions was quite unlike that in other countries around the gulf region. Maybe that is why I assumed it was secular. But yes, he leveraged the piety he came to display towards the end of his career and put it to good use (except that he could never quite reconcile with Iran).

        I will probably visit your blog and comment there sometime, we are hijacking some other person’s topic and blog 😀
        Take care, thanks for the comment 🙂 Ka kite…

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Secular does not mean the same as non-religious. Or does it? It means the citizens are permitted to practice their religion without fear. Let us not mix ‘secular’ together with ‘atheism’. Democracy even in a secular society will surely reflect the individual religious views and that does not undermine the outlook of the minorities.
    However, the danger lies in the fact that, the Christians are expected to be silent while other views are getting louder. The question is, ‘why should it be so?’. If the Christians are in the majority, by the principles of democracy whereby the people decide, it is clear that their views will prevail. But because the court of law does not recognize democracy, dissents who are not satisfied with the ‘majority carry the vote’ attitude of democracy have resorted to having their way through the courts!
    Secularism reflects the attitude of the societyand in a democratic society that includes the religious views. When the majority no longer has their say (thanks to the courts), it is no longer democracy nor secularism. Rather, it is a drift to anarchy or atheism in a sublime way in which a few who have certain attitudes (considered as odd by the majority) seek to cast off restrain and have their way.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. I agree. Although the U.S. And many other nations proclaim themselves to be secular, the separation between church and state has been pretty much violated as a principle by politicians. They appeal to God and they talk about how the Bible is guiding their policy decisions.

    Not all Americans are Christian, and the lack of real secularism can only be damaging. It’s almost like Christianity is

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  7. I agree. Although the U.S. And many other nations proclaim themselves to be secular, the separation between church and state has been pretty much violated as a principle by politicians. They appeal to God and they talk about how the Bible is guiding their policy decisions.

    Not all Americans are Christian, and the lack of real secularism can only be damaging. It’s almost like the tyranny of Christianity -or what they deem as such- is terrorising the American people, leaving their freedoms infringed in the name of religious liberties and real Christian values.

    These are indeed worrying times.

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  8. This reminds me of the quote “You don’t need religion to have morals. If you can’t determine right from wrong, you lack empathy, not religion.” And I think that’s true – we see more politicians, regardless of their religious affiliation, pursue their own self-interests more and more. If those self-interests take on a religious bent, it’s because said politicians want to be re-elected and the truth is, the majority of Americans are Christian.

    Someone before me said secular doesn’t meant atheistic, except it does. The dictionary defines secularism as “attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis.” While our government is supposedly secular, it never has been – it has always supported the Christian faith. The most immediate example I can think of: people swearing an oath in court on the Bible. This isn’t required by the law, but it is such a commonplace occurrence that it doesn’t occur to people not to swear on the Bible if they aren’t Christian. There are still state constitutions that require politicians running for office swear themselves to the Christian God when they are sworn into office. Secularism isn’t the rule of the day, and it hasn’t been since the country was founded.

    While the Founding Fathers did insist on freedom of religion, people tend to take it too far and assume that freedom meant religions other than Christianity. The truth is, most of the Founding Fathers only meant that they wanted the right to practice Christianity in a Protestant way rather than as part of the Catholic faith. That got extended over the years, but the original intention wasn’t to have a completely secular country. Reading the first paragraph of the Independence of Declaration gives you that much information.

    As for whether secularism would be better than what we have now, I don’t know. I’ve never known America as a secular country, so it’s hard to say whether a completely secular government would work. People would still be fighting to be re-elected, still steeped in their own self-interests, and corruption would still run rampant – that is not a religious thing, but a human thing. We are all capable of being bribed and manipulated, whether we are religious or not.

    I do think that it is ironic how often Christians go on about being persecuted, however, when they are the ones most likely to persecute others.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. What a sharp essay. I agree with much of what you write. It is too bad that politicians–and the masses (no pun intended)–do not follow this basic premise of our society. The US is suppose to have a divide between church and state, yet that divide is fading all the time. Kim Davis is a prime example of a person in a secular government job who now refuses to do that job because of her religion. I say that means it is time for her to find a job she can do that lines up with, or at least does not offend, her religious beliefs. And that is her right, but when a government employee refuses to follow the law, what does that say to everyone else? Can we really pick and choose which laws to follow? A judge in my town tried the same thing, refusing to marry gay couples. He had to back down or lose his job. He backed down. (Income trumps religion?) I am not gay and I am religious, but I also think people should have the right to love who they want. Love is not an easy thing to find. To quote the Beatles: “Live and let live.” Wait, they actually sang live and let die. Well, you get the point.

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  10. Thank God for offering me the choice between free will or belief to follow His word. As I choose to believe in God, only as a concept that is followed by other people, that leaves me free to accept that two people of the same sex should be able to enjoy their freedom to share love for one another, without law-makers being driven by a religious majority to oppose such relationships. Where a law is introduced to protect the rights of same sex couples wishing to be acknowledged by society as equal to traditional, heterosexual relationships, an official who is obliged to issue marriage certificates in line with the new ruling should either accept those newly founded equal rights and continue providing her services, or resign her position due to a personal conflict with staunchly religious beliefs. For those of a strict, God fearing persuasion, they should choose to collectively withdraw from a democratic, secular society and work to establish an independent, self sustaining religious community. 😉

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  11. I have not done an extensive study of the major religions. But I have to ask, is it really religion or people’s interpretation of what their religion teaches? I can’t believe that any major religion (and I’m talking about ancient scripture/mystical texts) preaches persecution or discrimination or self-righteousness. Perhaps I am naïve, but isn’t it more about the pursuit of power and control?

    Liked by 3 people

  12. France and ‘Laïcité’ as it is called is fascinating regarding this, and judging by what is in the news, and a concept that requires constant maintenance due to immigration, not just as many would suspect from Muslims, as girls have marched for the right to wear head scarves in school, but with so many Christians moving there from counties such as the UK where church and state are much more blurred, asking for a Christmas nativity play in a state school will also get a blunt, negative response. I wish we had similar ways in the UK, but it has been so long established in France, I think it would take hundreds of years to remove the various faiths from all areas of state.

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  13. I think Christians have had some good things to say over the years. Not to say that they know it all. Never did, never will. I personally think that reading what God wants when reading the Bible is really difficult these days. Anyway, you are on target wondering if a secular nation can ever exist.

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  14. I must point out a few errors in your assumptions. First, not all of christianity is the same. From catholic to mormon to baptist to pentecostal to mennonite, well, yes the list goes on and they have their similarities and the their differences. In general, christianity does not speak with one voice.

    The second error is assuming that anyone who identifies himself as christian is a practicing christian. Just as there are non practicing Jews, there are non practicing christians. And even of those who attend any services with any regularity are often ignorant as to their belief systems.

    Third, when you talk about christian values you are talking about generalizations without much substance. We may all believe in god, country and freedom but how many of us can actually define those ideals and how closely will those definitions aline with the definitions of others?

    Fourth, we have no state supported religion. Unlike Britain, where to official church is the Anglican church and its leadership heads are appointed by the prime minister when openings occur and the taxpayer pays the expenses of the church, we have no similar institution unless one worships at the feet of the Clinton foundation.

    Fifth, you have failed to see that the various humanist theories/ideals/organized practices are very much like those of religion. These have become belief systems as much as any religious tenet. Of course humanism comes in many different forms, there being no one overarching system and no uniform observance.

    Thus, your analysis falls short of the mark. You do make some excellent points and for that I applaud you.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Some have argued the point, but I believe there is indeed a difference between a secular government, and an atheistic government. Having spent over 20 years of my life as an atheist, I can assure you that the atheists want to remove any and all evidence of Christianity from public view. To be fair, having spent over 15 years of my life as a Christian, I know that most Christians would like to remove any evidence of atheism from public view.
    What I never hear anyone addressing is that the Constitution prohibits Congress from passing any laws regarding the establishment of religion, and to my knowledge Congress has not violated that prohibition. But for an elected official to choose to take his oath on a bible is not a violation of that prohibition. And for a local government to place a monument to the Ten Commandments is not a violation of that prohibition.
    I feel that a lot of the lawsuits and uproar over separation of church and state that we see today ignore that point. If a townspeople is primarily Christian, then would not a representative government reflect that? As long as it does not violate the rights of the irreligious, or of alternate religions, there should be no problem. But what many are screaming for today is freedom FROM religion, and that is very difficult to attain.
    Now I would have to ask myself, what if a townspeople was primarily Muslim? Then wouldn’t a representative government reflect that? And what if they wanted to place a monument to the Koran in the town square? While I would not like it one bit, I might be forced to say that there is no violation of the Constitution as long as no other religion’s rights are being violated.
    I do want to close by remembering that John Adams said “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” I feel as though I am witnessing the fulfillment of his words.
    Very interesting and thought provoking post. Thank you.

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  16. You casually speak of “Christian values” and “the Christian agenda” without defining either. This is very important because unlike your implication there is no one Christian set of values nor a single Christian agenda. You seem to presume that extreme fundamentalist Christianity is the sole form of Christianity and if so, you could not be more wrong. Christianity is a highly diverse set of beliefs and to write as you have does a great disservice to Christianity.

    As an Episcopalian my beliefs are quite different from a Nestorian and probably quite different from many other Episcopalians; Baptists are another denomination with widely varying views, thus the different conventions of Baptists such as Southern Baptist, Northern Baptist and Independent Baptist.

    Your post would be more interesting if you had not succumbed to a common prejudice about Christians.

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  17. That wouldn’t really solve the basic problem, though, which is how to relate force to philosophical disagreements we can’t easily settle. A majority atheist population could just as easily push through policies consistent with their own worldviews (which are atheistic, among other things) that are totally contradictory to the worldviews of the religious minorities. When the issue we’re trying to address is religious majorities pushing through policies consistent with their worldviews which are contradictory to the worldviews of atheistic minorities, that outcome isn’t really any better. The problem is that we don’t have a “standard” position we can enforce that’s not aligned with one group or another. Secularism isn’t just the same thing as state atheism, it’s a pretty messy solution we’ve worked out to try and deal with a sub-optimal situation where we basically say: “what do you care most about? What’s not a big deal to you?” and try to work out solutions that don’t infuriate any one group too badly.

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  18. I was surprised that so many people commenting bit off on Christian values and a separation of church and state theme. The post needs to go deeper by asking the question: Can you create any form of legislation without it being based on morality?

    The answer is an emphatic NO! Morality is tied to every piece of legislation, court decision, bureaucratic regulation, etc…

    Take as an example tax legislation. On the surface it seems that the laws and regulations are only about taxes – how much should someone else pay for having sold, bought, or distributed something? But go deeper. Where does the right of taxation come from? Why is it okay to tax the people operating under a government’s authority and protection? Where did the government get the right to form in the first place in order to offer protection and to establish authority? Why is government needed?

    The questions continue and all lead into ideological philosophies of individuals as they apply their worldview to any given situation. Secularism in the form of a government would still be supporting a set of idealistic morals. This, as others have said, is not bad in and of itself. But mankind has proven itself to be intrinsically selfish and self-motivated. Whether you believe that to be the sin-nature or a product of humans struggling to survive through the process of evolution is beside the point. Mankind cannot be trusted to look out for our fellow man. In small groups – without a doubt, but in large formations the desire to protect, serve, share, and otherwise seek the benefit of the group over our own lives is greatly diminished.

    Keith

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  19. I think your provocative article is actually a good argument for restricting laws to the barest minimum necessary. As soon as we engage in social engineering, we allocate resources, taken from some but not all people, to priorities set by a smaller group of people who deem that cause worthy. The larger the scale upon which this occurs, the less connected to the outcomes and less aligned in values most citizens are likely to be. This, above all else, was the true aim of the founding fathers and the purpose of the U.S. Constitution.

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    • Mr. Dardick; I agree with you but I am the First Vice-Chair of the Pima County Libertarian Party so surprise, surprise!

      Any decision that the government makes is good for some people, more often than not nowadays only cronies, and bad for others and the larger the size of the government making the decision, the worse the decision is for most people.

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  20. Good article. In my opinion a proper secular government would not license “marriage,” but a civil union instead, without regard to any bedroom-gender issues. Leave the marriage part between individuals and their beliefs.

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  21. As long as many politicians ‘kowtow’ to the ‘authority of ROME’ (the holy see)……
    btw; Thx for the ‘like’ on my blog etdwnz 🙂

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  22. For hundreds of years religion has been used for control. Many professed Christians refuse to actually look at the history because they are so engulfed in God’s loving arms they can’t see straight. 500 years ago God was not the loving picture created today. People feared God and were afraid of going to hell. It was illegal to own a bible and they weren’t taught to read anyway. There is this need to have this larger than life entity entity who is loving guiding their lives and keeping them from being responsible for they things they do. Ask forgiveness and all is okay. I recently wrote a post about this on one of my blogs – Watch and Whirl – where I have often ranted about things I have strong opinions about. The name of the post “This is going to Piss off Some Christians” – or something close to that. But most of my writings about authority and our injustice system is on my main blog- mynameisjamie.net. I want to read more of your posts so I will be back.

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