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It’s a wonder it took until this year for Lebanon’s government to understand what the United States’ Founding Fathers clearly understood nearly 250 years ago: a nation’s religious freedom requires secular governance.

On Aug. 30, a day before the centenary of Lebanon’s independence from French mandate control, President Michel Aoun proclaimed in a speech that Lebanon should be reconfigured as secular state.

Aoun asserted that such a state was the only way “of protecting and preserving pluralism,” and of fostering enduring societal unity, according to a France24 news report.

The 85-year-old Aoun emphasized that “Lebanon’s youth are calling for change … for them and for their future,” creating a major impetus to change.

“I say yes, the time has come,” he added. “There is a need to develop, modify, change the system.”

lebanon beirut explosion secular government
Mural of Michel Aoun in a bombed-out neighborhood. (Thierry Ehrmann, Flikr, CC BY 2.0)

French President Emmanuel Macron, who met with Aoun the day after his speech, said that the “constraints of a confessional system” (political power sharing among religious groups) made meaningful reforms difficult, Yahoo News reported.

Aoun’s pronouncement came after a catastrophic explosion at Beirut port earlier in August killed at least 188 people, wounded thousands and left thousands more homeless. One suspected cause was negligent government oversight and management of a huge stock of extremely explosive and unstable materials that ultimately exploded spontaneously in a port warehouse.

Without providing practical details on how a secular state might be fashioned, Aoun called instead for a dialogue of religious and political leaders to create “a formula that is accepted by everyone and that would be embodied in the appropriate constitutional amendments,” Breitbart News reported.

Breitbart explained why such a radical political transformation would be inherently daunting:

“Such a transition would involve tremendous adjustment for Lebanon, which has been ruled along sectarian lines for over three decades. ‘Lebanon boasts 18 different [religious] sects and has been governed by the Taif Agreement which allocates key government positions to a particular religious group, since 1989,’ the Middle East Monitor notes. ‘Under the agreement, which ended the 15-year civil war, Lebanon’s president must be Maronite Christian, the prime minister Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the parliament Shia Muslim.’”

Aoun did not say whether the Taif mandate’s requirements would be revised.

Among the leaders Aoun will need to negotiate a secular state with is Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Aoun ally Hezbollah — Breitbart characterizes it as “Iran’s proxy terrorist group” — which operates as an official political party in Lebanon. Hezbollah opponents blame the group for much of the corruption in Lebanese government, and such corruption is an alleged reason for the port explosion.

Nasrallah said his organization was “open to a new political contract for Lebanon,” Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya reported, according to Breitbart. But he stressed that any discussions must be carried out “with the will and consent of the various Lebanese factions.”

So, Lebanon in the 21st century is just now coming to grips with what America’s founders were already wrestling with in the 18th century: how to forge an enduring pluralistic, democratic republic where religious freedom was a core ethos. America’s founders knew the horrors that sectarian power dynamics inflicted throughout Western Europe in the Middle Ages, and they passionately hoped to avoid them in their new democracy.

The founders key innovation was embedding private religious freedom in the Constitution and a secular government designed to be held apart by a “high wall of separation” from religious influence (and, likewise, prohibiting its influence on private religious belief and expression).

But considering the American Christian Right’s unending campaign to inject and embed Christian doctrines and practices into public government affairs, and envisioning a future Christian theocracy, secular government is always destined it seems to be a work in progress.

Lebanon’s somewhat sudden realization that secular governance is the only ticket to a stable religiously pluralistic society is another vindication of the American experiment.

We Americans should wish them well as they attempt to do what we did — mostly successfully — long ago. It remains to be seen how high their new “wall of separation” will be.”

Very, very high, we hope.

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Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...

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