A Progressive Christian Candidate Discusses Separation of Church and State
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Wed May 12, 2010 at 03:33:29 AM EST
The creeping Religious Rightism in the Democratic Party in recent years has featured alliances with faux evangelical moderates like Religious Right leaders Rick Warren and Samuel Rodriguez. Another key feature has been the manufacture of a faux Religious Left to, among other things, facilitate these relationships, while declaring that the Culture Wars were over or almost; and the Religious Right dead or just about.  Lest these messages get derailed, religious progressives were told to shut-up and get with the program.

In the middle of all of this I published a collection of 19 essays by 22 authors titled Dispatches from the Religious Left:  The Future of Faith and Politics in America which took a different view.  Among other things, I argued in my introduction that such deeply held values as sexual justice and separation of church and state cannot be elided for the sake of political expediency.  

Pioneering religion & politics blogger Chuck Currie, who is also a minister in the United Church of Christ, takes a similar view.  Interestingly (and I think, significantly), his current campaign for a seat on the County Board of Commissioners in Portland, Oregon has surfaced some classic issues of religion and politics and separation of church and state. But unlike many other pols, Currie is willing and able to navigate these issues with knowledge and conviction.  I recently interviewed Currie about it for Religion Dispatches.   Excerpts from my article on the flip:

When it comes to questions about religion and politics and core questions about separation of church and state, clergy running for office is where the rubber meets the road. That's why win or lose, the candidacy of Rev. Chuck Currie may inform our thinking about the role of religious progressives around the country for years to come.

A few years ago... some Democratic Party faith consultants were advising candidates not to talk about separation of church and state because (echoing the assertions of religious right leaders like Pat Robertson) the phrase is not in the Constitution and besides, it might offend some voters. [see here for a sample of the discussion at the time.] While such claims were certainly debatable (Thomas Jefferson's famous phrase has, after all, been used by the Supreme Court to help explain the meaning of the religion clauses of the First Amendment for more than a century), it did reflect some pols' discomfort with the subject.

That discomfort is not shared by Rev. Currie who is as forthright about the principle of separation as he is about how his faith propels his efforts on behalf of the poor and the marginalized. In the run up to the 2008 elections, he devoted a Sunday sermon to how he thought Christians should think about religion and politics and separation of church and state. Now, as he faces a hot election contest himself, Religion Dispatches recently spoke with Currie about these and other issues.

Clarkson: How have people reacted to your identity as a minister as you introduce yourself to voters and ask them for their votes?

Currie:  Oregon is often called one of the least "churched" states in the union, and nowhere is that more true than Multnomah County. This is a very progressive political community but you do run into some people who are openly hostile toward religion and religious figures. And sadly, there is sometimes good reason for those feelings.

Religious leaders in Oregon, for example, have been at the forefront of efforts to deny civil rights to gays and lesbians. Some secular political progressives (certainly not all) see religion as being opposed to progressive values. There have been a few voters who have shut their doors or refused to take my literature because they know that I am a minister. Some have said they will not vote for me because they believe doing so would violate the separation of church and state.

While these incidents have been relatively few, my campaign team has had to wrestle with the question of how we introduce me to voters because of these concerns, but I have decided it is important for people to know my background in the church and my respect for both religious pluralism and the Constitution. I'm afforded the opportunity in this campaign to help educate the community and show voters that not all Christians are right-wing fundamentalists, but I also recognize that for a small number of people my beliefs disqualify me as a candidate.

Two recent examples come to mind that illustrate the concerns that have been voiced. At a recent candidate forum, I was introduced as being a "moral figure in the community." That prompted one of the other candidates to ask me directly during the Q & A part of the forum if I felt that atheists or other non-believers could be moral people. A commenter on Blue Oregon, a progressive political Web site, asked a somewhat related question:

   

As an atheist and a strict supporter of the Jeffersonian wall of separation between church and state, I have concerns about a minister (no matter what stripe of religion) who runs for elected office. I have a friend who is a minister who also feels that clergy shouldn't be involved in politics for a different reason, to wit "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's."

    Can you please explain how I have any assurance that you will not attempt to bring your belief into this office? In a time when America is more dangerously close to becoming a theocracy than ever before, I believe it's incredibly important to ask these kinds of questions.


The basic thrust of my answer to both these concerns was that 1) Yes, atheists can be moral people... I'm married to one, so I should know and 2) That I strongly support the separation of church and state but that no, I cannot say that my faith won't inform my views and I don't believe that is what Thomas Jefferson or anyone else ever intended.

Most voters I've talked with, however, have been more interested in my long history of work with local nonprofits. That work relates directly to the mission of the county.

Clarkson:  Fellow UCC minister Barry Lynn (executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State) worries that religious liberals may inadvertently emulate the religious right by seeking to impose religiously-driven political views on the rest of society, and thereby become "left-wing theocrats." How do you explain to voters how you relate your values to politics and public policy?

Currie:  If I ever felt that my role as an elected official would force me to violate my understanding of what it means to be a Christian I would resign my office. I want people to know that and understand that my values and principles come before politics. But I also want people to know that religion alone will not guide my actions and/or votes.

My office will be open to people of all faiths and people of no faith. Those elected to public office are there to represent all the people regardless of religious belief(s). I will not, for example, display religious symbols in my office. A government seat is not a place to promote religion. I have not in this race campaigned in churches and I have declined to answer questions from all religious organizations that publish candidate voter guides.

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But he apparently ran a good campaign. Not the least of which was his forthright approach to navigating matters of religion and politics and separation of church and state.

by Frederick Clarkson on Wed May 19, 2010 at 02:33:01 AM EST


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