Confronting Lies About Separation of Church & State
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 03:28:58 PM EST
It has recently become fashionable among some Democratic Party consultants to advise candidates not to talk about separation of church and state. Among their publicly stated reasons is that the phrase is not in the Constitution, and it raises "red flags with people of faith."  I have written about how such thinking is identitical to that of the religious right. I was called a lot of names for pointing this out, but the facts remain. I also pointed out that many religious people are not in infact, concerned about the cause and the language of separation, what's more they embrace it. Although these consultants profess to speak for people of faith, here are some they must have overlooked:
If you believe that separation of church and state is the best way to protect and extend religious liberty in the new millennium, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty is your voice in Washington.

Serving fourteen Baptist bodies, the Baptist Joint Committee is a non-profit 501(c)(3) education and advocacy organization that has worked for nearly seventy years promoting religious liberty for all and upholding the principle of church-state separation. Baptists have always understood that the two must go together.

Indeed. In 2005, J. Brent Walker, the Committee's executive director gave a speech at the McAfee School of Theology titled: Answering Ten Lies About Separation of Church and State
The discussion over the general notion of separation is not, as some would have it, simply a matter of "message" or of phrasing. It is a matter of core principles and how one defends and advances them. Many of us think that while one does not always need to flog every issue before every audience, it is nevertheless important to confront what Walker calls "the lies."  As Walker put it in his speech:  
We no longer have the luxury of remaining politely silent. When we hear them, we must respond. Yes, be kind, but speak the truth.
 Here are a few excerpts:  
...there are a lot of different kinds of "lies." Was it Mark Twain who said there are three types, "Lies, damn lies and statistics?" The lies I want to talk about are particularly insidious because, like statistics, most of them have at least a grain of truth in them. That's what makes them so hard to answer with a sound bite or a clever slogan. These are lies that are intentionally perpetrated by some people who know better. But there are other, well-intentioned souls who simply have been misled and are repeating them with a pure heart and the best of motives. For these I have some sympathy, and these are the folks I think can be educated by the facts

So listen up, Democrats. Here are two of the lies Walker debunks:

We don't have a separation of church and state in America because those words are not even in the Constitution.

True, the words are not there, but the principle surely is. It is much too glib a proposition to say that constitutional principles depend on the use of particular words. Who would deny that federalism, the separation of powers and the right to a fair trial are constitutional principles? But those words do not appear in the Constitution either. The separation of church and state, or the "wall of separation" talked about by Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson and the United States Supreme Court, is simply a shorthand metaphor for expressing a deeper truth that religious liberty is best protected when church and state are institutionally separated and neither tries to perform or interfere with the essential mission and work of the other.

We Baptists often hold up Roger Williams' "hedge or wall of separation" and point to Jefferson's 1802 Letter to the Danbury Connecticut Baptist Association where he talked about his "sovereign reverence" for the wall of separation. But we often forget about the writings of the father of our Constitution, James Madison, who, in a letter to Robert Walsh in 1819, observed that "the number, the industry and the morality of the priesthood and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of church and state."

Moreover, even Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, a work often cited by those who would disparage separation, writes favorably of it:  

In France, I had seen the spirits of religion and freedom almost always marching in opposite directions. In America I found them intimately linked together in joint reign over the same land. My longing to understand the reason for this phenomenon increased daily. To find this out, I questioned the faithful of all communions; I particularly sought the society of clergymen, who are the depositaries of the various creeds and have a personal interest in their survival. As a practicing Catholic I was particularly close to the Catholic priest, with some of whom I established a certain intimacy... I found that they all agreed with each other except about details; all thought that the main reason for the quiet sway of religion over their country was the complete separation of church and state. I have no hesitation in stating that throughout my stay in America I met nobody, lay or cleric, who did not agree about that. (emphasis added) p. 295, Geo. Laurence trans., J.P. Meyer ed., 1969. Cited, John Witte, "That Serpentine Wall," Vol. 101, U.Mich. L., Rev. 1898 (May 2003).

The Constitution may not have those words in it, but those who wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and other early observers certainly had the words in them.

God has been kicked out of the public square.

This is also a big lie. The separation of church and state does not mean a segregation of religion from politics or God from government or the right of people of faith to speak forcefully in the public square.

Religious speech in public places is commonplace. From bumper stickers, to billboards, to messages on the side of trucks, to John 3:16 banners at football games, to post-game prayer huddles and on and on. The Ten Commandments, for example, can be displayed in full public view at the edge of every church's and synagogue's property in the land. It seems like every month new cover stories addressing religion appear in the national news magazines, and religious programming on television and radio is ubiquious. "God Bless America" is sung during the seventh inning stretch in many major league ballparks.

People of faith who run for office can talk freely about their religious beliefs and allow them to influence their stance on public policy, as long as the policy outcomes or government regulations have some secular justification or broader cultural support.

Finally, civil religion is alive and well. In a culture as religious as ours, we should not be surprised that references to God pervade in our pledge, our mottos, our songs, our civil ceremonies and public rituals. These benign expressions of religion will usually pass constitutional muster as long as they do not involve religious exercises, worship or prayer, single out a particular religion for favored treatment or compel religious conformity. Now, some of us may have theological concerns about civil religion because its various forms can quickly morph into an idolatry of nationalism or result in the trivialization of religion. But the constitutional doctrine of church-state separation does not prohibit its various expressions.

No, we do not have a "naked public square" as some have suggested. I'd say it's dressed to the nines.

Reasonable people who agree with Walker on most aspects of church state separation, may disagree with him about some of the particulars, such as the appropriateness and extent of "civil religion," such as mentions of God in the pledge and in civil ceremonies. But I think just about everyone would agree that he is correct that these are far more benign than some of the other transgressions of church/state separation we can name, such as government employee-directed prayer in the public schools, or the placing of a monument to the Ten Commandments in the foyer of a state court house. That some people feel more strongly about some of these things and file constitutional lawsuits in federal court, is not to be construed as driving religion, God, people of faith, or much of anything else out of public life. That is a bunch of hyperbole. But clearly some of these matters will be close and sometimes controversial calls at the local level, and constitutional guidance by the courts is to be expected -- and respected.

And however one may view the litigation around issues like God in the pledge of allegiance, these things have nothing to do with the Democratic Party, nor necessarily liberalism in general. In that case, for example, one man filed a lawsuit.  But even though it drove polititians screaming in fear to distance themselves from the matter, it was nevertheless of sufficient constitutional principle that it made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court does not consider cases that are of little public import or nuisance suits. (The court threw this one out after deciding that the plaintiff lacked standing to sue.) No matter what one might think about it, it was certainly not a frivolous matter -- and it had nothing to do with the Democratic Party and it had nothing to do with liberalism.  It is important for those who oppose the religious right, not to buy into the religious right's framing, or for that matter, the framing that emanates from Fox News.

I mention this because there are no magic bullets for these issues. And they will most certainly not be magically solved by "messages" cooked up by political consultants. Tensions in religion and public life will always be around. That is the way it has always been in a nation -- our nation -- part of whose central identity is religious pluralism. Working these things out is part of what it means to be an American. It seems to be the nature of the problem that most of us need to get more deeply grounded in what these things are really about, and how to navigate them in more thoughtful ways, and most importantly -- not allow the particulars to be conflated with unrelated generalities.  That was also the method of the War on Chrismas. Many will recall that some stores' decisions to deemphasize Christmas and say more inclusive things like "Happy Holidays", out of respect for the diversity of their clientele was met with hysteria and wild generalizations against liberals and the ACLU and many others for the actions of some department store executives -- and no one else.  

These issues are never going completely away, certainly not as long as the religous right remains powerful -- in other words, for the forseeable future.

So the next time you hear Democrats mouthing the slogans and Conventional Wisdom of the religious right, you might suggest that they take it up with the Baptists.

does not have to mean becoming indistinguishable from the religious right. And getting good at it is going to mean more than religious Dems learning to work expressions of faith into their public personae. There isn't really anything new in that. It's as old as the republic. Doing it in a way that is consistent with core values of the rights of individual conscience and separation of church and state is the challenge that is renewed in every generation.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Jan 30, 2007 at 05:03:18 PM EST

This precisely the argument that Liberals should be making. It perfectly frames the Liberal core value that any one person's recipe for salvation should not be legislated upon the rest of us.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Wed Jan 31, 2007 at 07:53:22 AM EST

This is an excellent statement of the issues and the current situation.  My own sense is that the underlying problem is the lack of a consensus, not so much on whether religious views should be expressed in the public square, but what "respect" should be given to them, or, perhaps better, what "weight" they should be accorded.  This issue is approached in a statement you quote: "People of faith who run for office can talk freely about their religious beliefs and allow them to influence their stance on public policy, as long as the policy outcomes or government regulations have some secular justification or broader cultural support."  One does have to ask the question: If religous reasons don't "justify," then what is the point of expressing them?  I think the answer is simply, "so that we can better, and more fully, understand each other."  There are enormous benefits to that!  If someone tells me the religious reasons for their disapproval of abortion, those reasons help me understand the person, possibly as someone to be respected.  Further it entitles me to offer my religious reasons for not disapproving abortion.  Finally, it permits us to ask whether there is common ground, or at least some compromise that we each might make to accommodate each other.  But, to summarize my basic point, the "controversy" is at bottom an uncertainty about how to understand the role of religious reasons in our public discourse.  

by doubtisdivine on Thu Feb 01, 2007 at 01:21:28 AM EST

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