The mixing of government and religion can be a threat to free government, even if no one is forced to participate. When the government puts its imprimatur on a particular religion, it conveys a message of exclusion to all those who do not adhere to the favored beliefs. [n.9] A government cannotbe premised on the belief that all persons are created equal when it asserts that God prefers some. Only “[a]nguish, hardship and bitter strife” result “when zealous religious groups struggl[e] with one another to obtain the Government’s stamp of approval.” Engel, 370 U. S., at 429; see also Lemon, 403 U. S., at 622-623;Aguilar v. Felton, 473 U.S. 402, 416 (1985) (Powell, J., concurring). [n.10] Such a struggle can “strain a political system to the breaking point.” Walz v. Tax Commission, 397 U.S. 664, 694 (1970) (opinion of Harlan, J.).
When the government arrogates to itself a role in religious affairs, it abandons its obligation as guarantor of democracy. Democracy requires the nourishment of dialogue and dissent, while religious faith puts its trust in an ultimate divine authority above all human deliberation. When the government appropriates religious truth, it “transforms rational debate into theological decree.” Nuechterlein, Note, The Free Exercise Boundaries of Permissible Accommodation Under the Establishment Clause, 99 Yale L.J. 1127, 1131 (1990). Those who disagreeno longer are questioning the policy judgment of the elected but the rules of a higher authority who is beyond reproach.
Madison warned that government officials who would use religious authority to pursue secular ends “exceed the commission from which they derive their authority and are Tyrants. The People who submit to it are governed by laws made neither by themselves, nor by an authority derived from them, and are slaves.” Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments (1785) in The Complete Madison 300 (S. Padover, ed. 1953). Democratic government will not last long when proclamation replaces persuasion as the medium of political exchange.