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"The separation of church and state has taken renewed life"
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"The separation of church and state has taken renewed life"

A debate about Sunday horse racing has moved from the church and race track to the streets and universities as Jamaica grapples with the concept and reality of the separation of church and state, writes Shane Cunningham, 24, a Commonwealth Correspondent from Jamaica.

A war of words has erupted in two Jamaican daily newspapers, launched by the introduction last year of Sunday horseracing and betting.

The church strongly ­­condemns Sunday horseracing. Concurrently, supporters of horseracing and secularists in general point out the church’s view should not necessarily override what the government sees as economically beneficial. From then on, from the streets to the Universities this separation of church and state discussion has taken renewed life.

“Secularists” clamour for the church to take the proverbial back seat, while “the church” through several ecumenical associations seeks to salvage the moral decay it says is engendered by rampant secularism.

As far back as the 1648 “Treaty of Westphalia”, freedom from dominion by the Church has been seen as a prerequisite for democratic society. The term “Separation of Church and State” was popularized by former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson in an 1802 letter to Baptists in Connecticut. Jefferson believed religion was an individual matter, and government had no place supporting a particular belief system or restricting the free exercise of belief or non-belief.

Yet Jamaica faces an irony or paradox. In this self-declared “Christian nation”, with the most churches per square mile in the world, and where most public functions begin with prayers and devotions, one of the current hot-button topics is separation of church and state. Put another way, it’s a debate over what role the church should have in the Jamaican democratic process.

The argument favouring separation of church and state in Jamaica views individual liberty and freedom from state tyranny as an undergirding principle of any true democracy. Freedom of thought, conscience and religion is a fundamental democratic right. Accordingly, if Jamaica wishes to consider itself a democracy, then religious freedom means religiosity and moral standards are the sole prerogative of the individual. Public affairs should not be disproportionately influenced or guided by the church’s standpoint, and the church should retreat from its previously legally enshrined high horse and resign itself to being just one of many voices in the “demos”.

On the contrary, the defenders of the right of the church to be central in public discussion make the case that historically and traditionally Jamaica is a Christian nation. This view is supported by reference to the density of churches per square mile, followed by the observation that the majority of Jamaicans are Christians or at worst self-styled “believers in God.”  The moral decay and social malaise which dominate Jamaican reality is held up as a direct result of a move away from Christian principles, ethics and morality.

Personally, I have an ambivalent take on this issue. I 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 significant voice. However, I am also equally convinced that morality, particularly Christianity, cannot be legislated and should emanate from free choice.

Jamaica is a democratic society, meaning each has the right to make one’s own choices within the confines of the law. 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 the church must be but one of the many important voices in the public sphere.

Some continue going to church on Sundays (or Saturdays) whilst others prefer to bet on horses on Sundays (or Saturdays). Alas, as the former seek to reproach the latter, who resent said reproach, this debate will continue.

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About me:

“I am a graduate of the University of the West Indies Mona, holding a MSc. in Government (international relations specialisation) and a BSc. in International Relations (first class honours). My ambition is to serve my country in some public policy formulation capacity as well as to eventually pursue a Phd. with a focus on Development Studies and/or aspects of International Relations and Foreign Policy.”

“I am also a die-hard sports fan especially of football and basketball and a lover of food but not so adventurous as it comes to trying new stuff.”

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?

To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please visit: http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/submit-articles/commonwealthcorrespondents/

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