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Permeating the Wall of Separation

This piece also appeared under the title Religion and Politics: Report on a Debate (The Sikh Review, February 2005, Vol. 53:2, No. 614, pp. 59-61). A 90 minute video recording of the event is available from The Sikh Times upon request.

The Sikh Times, Dec. 2, 2004

Photo: (L to R) Balmeet Singh, Gunisha Kaur, Harminder Kaur, Manvir Kaur, and Tanveer Kaur, International Sikh Youth Symposium Finals, Milford (a Boston suburb), MA, August 7, 2004

At first glance one assumes 'separation of church and state' to be an idea inimical to Sikhs steeped in traditions that glorify the inseparability of religion and politics. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson left little room for interpretation when he wrote of his vision for a 'wall of separation between church and state.'

Therefore, I was unsure of what to expect when I.J. Singh invited me to attend a debate he was moderating on the topic during the International Youth Symposium Finals held at the gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) at Milford, Massachusetts on August 7, 2004. (This was the second of three sessions organized by age group.) I was thankful for the invitation since the event was not publicized on the gurdwara's Web site or any of the popular Sikh forums on the Internet.

As it turned out, however, all participants spoke in favor of the motion. All but one (Balmeet Singh) supported what is commonly referred to as the 'accommodation' interpretation.

Supporters of accommodation appear oblivious to Jefferson's actual choice of words - 'wall of separation' - prohibiting church and state from influencing each other whatsoever. Incredulously, they redefine separation to imply parity of influence of all religions upon the state.

I should clarify here that both the debate and the motion, as described above, were derived implicitly from what I.J. Singh termed a 'discussion' on 'Church and State - Religion and Politics.'

Gunisha Kaur stumbled almost immediately out of the starting block lumping Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Indira Gandhi into an imagined trio of 'religiously over-zealous leaders.' She stressed the inseparability of church and state within Sikhism by characterizing the sant-sipahi (saint-soldier) tradition as a compound rather than a mixture. Sikhs owed their very survival to the institution of miri-piri (temporal-spiritual duality), she said. She insisted that God 'runs the universe' and that the concept of God was capable of adequately representing all belief systems including, say, 'natural selection.'

Sticking steadfastly to the accommodation interpretation, she asserted that 'separation' is intended to ensure that no religion dominates the state, or that each religion influences the state equally.

Harminder Kaur sermonized that humans were on earth to achieve salvation. Only those who believe in a religion are capable of being just. By extension, then, only those states that accept the guiding hand of the church could be expected to act justly.

Balmeet offered a much-needed corrective by acknowledging that atheists too were capable of being moral. He was the only participant who drew a distinction between church and state as institutions, which he argued must remain separate, and religion and politics as aspects of individual behavior, which he conceded must necessarily overlap.

He disagreed with an earlier opinion that religion had the capacity to prevent war. To him, war was a part of human nature and would always be with us, religion or not. On the contrary, he said, religion did appear to be the cause of many conflicts, e.g. between nations and in gurdwaras.

Tanveer Kaur defended miri-piri in terms of the need for Sikhs to practice what they preach.

There was healthy disagreement on the subject of Sikh politicians using gurdwaras as campaign stops. Manvir Kaur stoutly objected to the practice whereas Tanveer saw nothing wrong with it. Harminder insisted that only spiritually qualified Sikhs should enter politics and campaign in gurdwaras.

I.J. Singh did a masterful job of prodding the discussion along with incisive questions and critical remarks. At one point he asked the participants what they thought of the idea of Khalistan joining the ranks of Iran, Pakistan, and Israel as the fourth overtly theocratic nation in the world. There was general consensus against the idea of a theocratic Khalistan. Harminder offered the nuance that although theocracies might result in peace within (due to homogeneity of moral values), they are more likely to be at conflict with other nations. She also lamented that a worldwide trend toward theocracy would not be conducive to the spread of Sikhism around the globe. Balmeet added that, like communism, theocracies work only on paper.

Not willing to take no for an answer, I.J. Singh justified Israel and Pakistan as undesirable theocratic entities that had become historically necessary and inevitable. To their credit, the young debaters didn't take the bait. Gunisha described the theocratic inevitability as an 'eye for an eye.' Harminder articulated in favor of a Khalistan in the hearts and minds rather than on a piece of land. 'Theocracies don't promote religion, they demote religion,' she concluded.

It appears, however, that Iran and the Vatican are the only true theocracies, i.e. where the religious leadership has a direct hand in the governance of the state. Israel (Judaism) and Pakistan (Islam) are simply two of many nations that have a state religion. Other examples include the United Kingdom (Christianity), Thailand (Buddhism), and Nepal (Hinduism).

American secularism was nowhere more exposed than during the discussion on religious holidays. Many contestants suggested adapting Sikh religious holidays to existing American ones, e.g. Manvir suggested celebrating Guru Gobind Singh's gurpurab (birthday) during the Christmas holidays. Other ideas included a holiday per religion and renaming Christmas holidays to something more secular such as 'winter holidays.' Once again citing atheists, Balmeet ridiculed the idea of a holiday per religion. Instead he suggested doing away with religious holidays altogether and using paid time off. Tanveer agreed.

'Question hour' featured more comments than questions. I asked the panel (specifically Balmeet) whether the Sikh practice of having elected members of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (S.G.P.C.), who are tightly aligned with the Akali Dal political party, appoint the jathedar (head-priest) of the Akal Takht (the supreme Sikh religious authority) was a violation of the separation of church and state.

Balmeet seemed all set to call it a violation but backed off in the nick of time sensing that he might 'start a riot.' Gunisha deflected responsibility onto the Government of India, under whose auspices the S.G.P.C. elections are held.

Rupinder Kaur, Inderpreet Singh, and Tejinder Singh judged the contest. Gunisha (Buffalo, New York) was declared the winner. Balmeet (Bakersfield, California) and Tanveer (Oakville, Ontario) came in second and third respectively. All three received prizes and letters were sent to their schools to highlight their achievement.

Although I did not witness a single unorthodox Sikh participant during the entire day of final competition, I.J. Singh assured me that there had been a few during the early rounds. Nevertheless, the absence of discrimination in the organization of such events must be judged not by the number of unorthodox participants but by the number of unorthodox judges, of which I observed none.

I commend I.J. Singh for introducing a discussion format into a competition whose qualifying rounds had been based exclusively on monologues. This was a stimulating experience and one can only hope that the tradition flourishes, albeit with somewhat greater inclusiveness.