Paradoxical Paradise: Separation of Church and State in Jamaica

Posted: August 30, 2012 in Politics/Current affairs

It can be argued that as far back as the 1648 “Treaty of Westphalia” that the sovereign nation, free from the dominion of the overarching Church was deemed a foundational reality and a prerequisite for any democratic society. Multiple sources attribute the popularizing of the term “Separation of Church and State” to the former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson in 1802 in a letter to Baptists in Connecticut. For Jefferson religion was a matter to be confined between an individual and his or her God and the government had no place supporting a particular belief system or restricting anyone from the free exercise of their belief or lack thereof. However, in a country with the most churches per square mile in the world and one of the most prominently self-declared “Christian nations,” where most public functions begin with prayers and devotions; it is somewhat ironic and/or paradoxical that one of the hot-button topics in the Jamaican public discourse is that of the separation of church and state, or better put the role the voice of the church should have in the Jamaican democratic process.

In the columns of the two major daily newspapers in Jamaica a war of words has developed between the “secularists” who are clamouring for the church to take the proverbial back seat and “the church” who, through several ecumenical associations are seeking to reclaim the country from what it sees as the moral decay engendered by this rampant secularism.  From late 2011 into 2012 the issue that brought this debate to a head was the institution of Sunday horseracing and betting. The church came out strongly in ­­condemnation of this act. Concurrently, supporters of horseracing and secularists in general sought to make the point that the church’s view should not necessarily override what the government sees as economically beneficial. From then on, from the streets to the Universities, to different degrees, this separation of church and state discussion has taken renewed life.

Synoptically, the pro separation of church and state argument in the current discourse in Jamaica is grounded in the view that individual liberty and freedom from the tyranny of the state is an undergirding principle of any true democracy. Freedom of thought, conscience and religion is one such fundamental right that democracy espouses. Accordingly, if Jamaica wishes to consider itself a democracy then religious freedom must attain i.e. religiosity and any accompanying moral standard or the lack thereof should be the sole prerogative of the individual themself. Thus public affairs should not be disproportionately influenced/ guided by the church’s standpoint. As previously stated, the church must retreat from its previously legally enshrined high horse and resign itself to being but one of the many voices in the “demos”.

On the contrary the defenders of the right of the church to be central in public discussion rest their position of a few major points as well. Most such arguments begin by making the case that historically and traditionally Jamaica is a Christian nation. To support this view the aforementioned density of churches per square mile is often referenced. That reference is then usually followed by the observation that the majority of Jamaicans are Christians or at worst self-styled “believers in God.” They also push back on “separationists” arguing that the moral decay and social malaise which dominate Jamaican reality is a direct result of this move away from Christian principles, ethics and morality.

Personally, I have an ambivalent take on this issue. I do believe the moral conscience that the church provides is very important and I have deep misgivings about the move of some to totally mute this important voice. However, I am also equally strong that morality, particularly Christianity cannot be legislated and should emanate from free choice. Also as Jamaica is a democratic society each man has the right to make their own choices within the confines of the law. And as such I do believe the role of the church in society should be to ensure it puts forward its views on all issues. But at the same time it must be but one of the many important voices in the public sphere.

But alas, as persons are still going to church on Sundays (or Saturdays) whilst others prefer to bet on horses on said Sundays (or Saturdays) and the former seek to reproach the latter, who resent said reproach this debate will continue on.

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