After centuries of religious wars and persecutions in Europe, America's founders wisely decided to prevent conflict by keeping church and state apart, each operating freely in its own domain, neither intruding on the other.
Egypt's current horror between Islamist and secular forces shows what can happen when that principle isn't followed.
After Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood government was elected by a narrow margin last year, it swiftly passed a new constitution favoring Islamic rule. In mosques, clerics hailed the constitution as a "victory for Islam" and called opponents "infidels." This rankled secular Egyptians -- and when the Brotherhood government proved incompetent, letting economic hardship grow, mass opposition snowballed.
"His presidency threw the country into deep polarization," The Washington Post said. "Those who took to the streets say he lost his electoral legitimacy because he tried to give the Brotherhood and Islamist allies a monopoly on power."
Waves of protests filled Cairo. Young opponents gathered 22 million signatures demanding Morsi's ouster. Vast mobs filled streets. Violence stirred. Egypt's military gave the president two days to compromise with his opponents -- and when he didn't, generals removed him and started steps for new elections and a new constitution.
This action triggered a massive counterattack by Muslim fundamentalists who want a religious government. Fighting in several Egyptian cities has killed at least 75 people -- and nobody can guess whether Egypt will suffer a full-blown civil war.
Here's another example showing why government and religion should keep hands off each other:
In 1926, leftist leaders in Mexico clamped down on pervasive Catholicism, banning sacred processions in streets, forbidding priests to wear clerical collars, restricting church land ownership, etc. In retaliation, bishops halted all worship services -- and thousands of armed church members mutinied in the Cristero War.
Gory battles were fought in many locales. By the time a cease-fire finally was arranged, the uprising had cost 90,000 lives -- 57,000 on the government side and 30,000 on the rebel side, plus noncombatant civilian victims. In 2000, the Vatican conferred sainthood on 23 Cristero figures.This tragic episode, like the current violence in Egypt, shows that America's founders were exceedingly wise to let religion and government operate freely in their own independent spheres, neither interfering with the other. Hands-off is the smartest policy.