Thursday, January 15, 2015

Why is separation of church and state a blurry concept in Rhode Island?

By almost any measure, Rhode Island just isn’t that religious, yet whenever we have a big public event such as the inauguration of Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza or Governor Gina Raimondo, there is an effort to pack the speeches and proceedings with as much religiosity as possible. These inclusions of faith in the affairs of government should be anathema to citizens of the United States, which has long enshrined religious liberty and freedom of conscience into our Constitution, but intrusions of religiosity into secular government should be twice as repellent to Rhode Islanders, proud citizens of the state that first enshrined the principles of separation of church and state and freedom of conscience into government.

It seems obvious that the inclusion of so much religion in the two ceremonies mentioned above have little to do with the belief systems of Jorge Elorza or Gina Raimondo. Instead, both were making calculated political decisions. Elorza, it should be remembered, denied being an atheist during his election and was challenged by his opponent, Buddy Cianci because of a law paper he wrote that seemed to indicate that he did not believe in God. Meanwhile, Bishop Thomas Tobin of the Providence Catholic Diocese made a big display out of not appearing at Gina Raimondo’s inauguration because of her support for a woman’s right to abortion. Instead, Tobin cross-scheduled a mass across town.

Perhaps seeking to demonstrate that she is not opposed to religion but instead embraces it, Gina Raimondo invited six clergy, representing an array of religious points of view, to deliver three invocations and three benedictions at her inauguration. Not to be outdone by the clerics, Raimondo drew on her own religious beliefs and spoke about the power of miracles and grace, saying,
We need that eternal optimism shown by our founders … who believed in divine intervention, good fortune and, yes, providence – the idea that through God’s grace, all things are possible. Because they are.”
Raimondo ended her inaugural speech with more appeals to God, saying,
I believe this is why we are all here today. We are tying our fates together, and with God’s guidance, we will find a way.
"Thank you, God bless all of you and God bless the State of Rhode Island.”
This had the perverse effect of making her entire speech sound like one long prayer, short on specific action plans and long on wishful thinking and the promise of miracles, the exact kind of thinking that got our state into bad deals like 38 Studios.

The thing is, Rhode Island isn’t that religious. The Providence area is rated last in “Bible-mindedness” according to a Barna Group poll, and a Gallup poll puts us in a tie with Oregon for the fifth least religious state in the country. Only Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont are less religious.

44% of Rhode Islanders identify as nonreligious. When a parade of clergy explicitly link a belief in the supernatural with our ability to be proper Rhode Islanders, nonbelievers are excluded. Even when nonbelievers are mentioned, as did happen once during the Raimondo inauguration, our views are marginalized and twisted to suit a religious purpose, as when the Rev. Edward L. Pieroni of the St. Raymond Roman Catholic Church said,
Oh eternal and almighty Source of all that is good and true, foundation of our life and love as a people, we, those of strong faith, or little faith or perhaps even of no faith, join our good thoughts and wishes and ask for guidance and strength from You and from each other. We seek compassion and understanding.”
Why would a person of no faith be praying to an “eternal and almighty Source of all that is good and true”? Why are those with no faith otherwise excluded from joining our fellow citizens in seeking compassion and understanding? And finally, just how much compassion and understanding is being afforded nonbelievers by foisting such overt and exclusionary religiosity on them during a secular, governmental function?

An important step in realizing the potential of our state is to stop ignoring the very values that make us who we are. We are a state that respects all points of view when it comes to religion, and we do that best by not exalting those views while carrying out the secular duties of government.

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