Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Church-State Issue- Separation or Divorce?


Luke 20:21-25 (New Living Translation)

21 “They said, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right and are not influenced by what others think. You sincerely teach the ways of God. 22Now tell us--is it right to pay taxes to the Roman government or not?”
23He saw through their trickery and said, 24”Show me a Roman coin.[
a] Whose picture and title are stamped on it?”
“Caesar's,” they replied.
25”Well then,” he said, “give to Caesar what belongs to him. But everything that belongs to God must be given to God.”

Is separation of Church and State, as widely interpreted these days, really a two way street?

Many who advocate controls to prevent any religious intervention in state affairs frame the question and their answer that way. Here, for example, is what one blogger had to say about it:

“Separation of church and state is a two-way street. It isn’t just about restricting what the government can do with religion, but also what religious bodies can do with the government. Religious groups cannot dictate to or control the government. They cannot cause the government to adopt their particular doctrines as policy for everyone, they cannot cause the government to restrict other groups, etc.”

Interesting! Perhaps the author of the blog didn’t intend to use such a broad brush, but the language used certainly promotes the idea that religion should play NO role whatsoever in American political discourse.

To his credit the author does attempt to give us “religious” types some room to maneuver:

“There is, however, another public/private distinction — the one that is really at issue: private, as in what individuals do (whether in their homes or in the street) and public, as in what the government does (public funds, public housing, etc.). A free society must protect the religious expression of the former (individual citizens) but not the latter. The government has no “right to free speech.”

It’s become the most familiar argument against people of faith exercising power within the political arena. In plain language it means that as long as I express my faith, and the convictions that are born from that faith, privately I am on solid ground. It’s when people of faith attempt to influence public policy or morality that the welcome mat to religious practice is pulled out from under the adherent’s feet.

Does that sound like a two way street to you? It doesn’t to me. What it promotes, as I see it, is schizophrenia. For example, I have a real aversion to crimes like murder. Based on what’s been written above I can hold that objection privately. And, I can even hold that view in the political arena as long as my objection to such a crime stems from secular reasoning. Now that seems easy enough at first blush. After all, a prohibition against murder is almost universally acceptable. The distinction between public and private morality are compatible. No proponent of Church-State separation would argue against religious law being used as a base for secular law in such a case. Or would they? That’s the essence of what the Supreme Court has mandated for years now. That’s the essence of their most recent rulings on the Ten Commandments.

The schizophrenic nature of this type of public policy debate is especially evident when there doesn’t seem to be a public consensus on issues. The issues that come to mind in these situations are the teaching of “creationism,” “Intelligent Design,” or more critically, the issue of abortion. The courts have consistently ruled against people of faith in these types of decisions, citing the “lack” of a secular basis in what the religious were attempting to do.

It’s more than a matter of hair splitting. What it has done is effectively snuff out any chance that the religious side of the debate can possibly win. Stephen Carter, no lover of the religious right, saw this and wrote about it in “The Culture of Disbelief – How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion.” Commenting on the 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard case ruling that Louisiana state law permitting the teaching of “creation science” alongside Darwinian evolution was unconstitutional:

“A majority of the Supreme Court missed the point in Edwards v.Aguillard (1987), with the suggestion that a law requiring schools to teach scientific creationism is unconstitutional because most of its supporters were religiously motivated – a suggestion that would also render unconstitutional the religiously motivated teaching of evolution, or for that matter, a religiously motivated nuclear arms freeze. A similar suggestion has been made by some pro-choice scholars who have argued that pro-life legislation violates the Establishment Clause because of the religious motivation of many supporters. For the religiously devout citizen, faith may be so intertwined with personality that it is impossible to tell when one is acting, or not acting, from religious motive.” (Page 111)

This all brings to mind something that happened to me in a workplace many years ago now. I was working for a farm based company, in the linehaul division. My daily job was to dispatch drivers throughout the Midwest. In that capacity I got to know each one of them very well. But one of the things I didn’t know about them early on in my experience was their religious beliefs, nor did they know mine. We just separated it all. Each morning when I’d go to work I would just shut off my “Christian” side and turn on my “secular” side. I had my job to do and the drivers had theirs. My capacity was professional, nothing more. I thought it was going quite well until one day my manager called me into his office and discussed my job performance with me. He began by asking a question – “Are you alright these days, Phil?” It struck me as a very odd place to begin a professional conversation. “I’m fine, why do you ask?”
“Well, I’m noticing something. I see the Phil who is very competent at what he does every day. He’s very professional. He makes good decisions. But there’s a Phil I’m missing.” At this point he pulled my resume out of a file folder. “Here it is. There’s a Phil who has a graduate degree in theology. Where is he these days? I ask because I don’t see him at all. You see, I hire on the whole-man concept. I don’t expect you to leave part of who you are at home when you come to work. If I felt that way I never would have hired you.”
I was stunned. I’d fallen into the trap that had been placed on societally. I wanted to be sure that I didn’t mix my faith with anything or anyone outside myself.

In retrospect I see how wise my manager was, and I also see how foolish I was.

Yet, in spite of its foolishness, the schizophrenic lifestyle I was living wasn’t unexpected. Our courts have told us that we can practice our faith as long as it doesn’t impinge on public policy. Powerful organizations have fought us tooth and nail for years now to ensure that we have no role in the public arena. And, sadly, some people of faith have fully bought the message that faith needs to be a segmented part of our lives:

“The religious community, according to Jesus, must have nothing to do with the state -- which is why the Romans with their purely civic religion hated so passionately the religion he founded. These new-fangled atheist Christians, instead of permitting their god to be worshipped along side the normal gods of all other peoples, refused to abide by the rules that governed Rome's civic religion, which was the rule of tolerance.”

What an amazing piece of exegesis! That’s not separation. That’s divorce!

The problem with this notion of separation is that it renders religion and morality meaningless, as this expression from Father John Neuhaus demonstrates:

“In recent decades, “pluralism” has become something of a buzzword. It is variously employed. Often it is used to argue that no normative ethic, even of the vaguest and most tentative sort, can be “imposed” in our public life. In practice this means that public policy decisions reflect a surrender of the normal to the abnormal, of the dominant to the deviant. Indeed it is of more than passing interest that terms such as abnormal or deviant have been largely exorcised from polite vocabulary among elites in American life.” (Page 146)

So, on both sides of the issue, from lawyers and powerful lobbyists attempting to strip religion from the public arena to fellow religious pilgrims advocating that we abandon the state altogether, faith is seen as unnecessary at best or as the enemy of the people at worst.

Doctor Carter, who I cited earlier, put his feelings about the silliness of it all this way:

“The problem does not stop with the silly fight over the rental of public school buildings by a religious group or the unhappy order to wipe the Motorist’s prayer from state road maps. We also have enthusiastic litigation – so far unsuccessful – that challenges the tax exempt status of the Roman Catholic Church because of its antiabortion policy. And why not? After all, it is a well understood rule that tax-exempt contributions cannot be used for lobbying or to support or oppose political candidates.” (Page 123)

In that light Carter saw something even more ominous:

“Perhaps, in short, it is a way of ensuring that only one vision of the meaning of reality – that of the powerful group of individuals called the state – is allowed a political role. Back in Tocqueville’s day, this was called tyranny. Nowadays, all too often, but quite mistakenly, it is called the separation of church and state.” (Page 123)

We’ve been careening down this one way street for at least two generations now. We’re well past the point of separation. What we really have now is a public arena that has divorced faith. Give it some more time and will, sadly, be banished to some sort of gulag. If/when that happens I’ll leave it to your imagination what the public square and our neighborhoods will look like.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Like many other arguments for lowering the wall between church and state, this blog post doesn't distinguish between religion-in-government and "the public square," a phrase that implies more than merely the government. This kind of rhetoric strikes me as a kind of intellectually dishonest sleight of hand.

No one I know is calling for the banishment of all religion from "the public square." Instead, we want to make sure that the government isn't promoting one religion or belief system (monotheism, for example) over others, and in doing so, imply that there is only one "correct" system of belief. We want to make sure that the government is completely neutral on the issue of religion. Religion should be expressed — even flourish — in non-governmental settings. It is these non-governmental settings that I think of when I hear the phrase "public square."

Support for a law or government practice should be seen as a benefit for the whole society, not just for religious beliefs. It's the difference between supporting a law that prohibits murder and supporting one that requires all women to wear headscarves. It's understandable to support the first law primarily for religious reasons, but a reasonable person can see how such a law would benefit society for non-religious reasons (being safe on the street, not having to live by "the law of the jungle," etc.).

By contrast, a law that all women wear headscarves for religious reasons would serve no immediately apparent social purpose — and none should be passed in the U.S. Many of the proposed injections of religion into the government that I've heard about lately, mostly those proposed by fundamentalist Christians, seem closer to the second example than the first.

The issue is not about banishing religion from "the public square." The issue is about making sure that the government doesn't shove a particular religion or belief system down our throats.


Rob in L.A.

Phil Dillon, Prairie Apologist said...

Rob

Intellectually dishonest? I say that what is happening is bait and switch.

The courts, of course, aren't making any such distinctions as headscarves. The rulings have been about matters of substance,a bout the ability to challenge secular humanist teaching (Darwinism vs intelligent design) and whether or not the "right to privacy" trumps the life of an unborn child.

I stand by what I've said. What the courts, and those who use the "wall of separation" really want is religion devoid of its real meaning. What they want is religion that does not challenge their right to control the public square.

James Fletcher Baxter said...

Judeo-Christian faith is not man-made and therefore is not just another 'religion' along with all other 'faiths.' Thus, our faith includes Scriptural criteria for human choice that is transcendent; greater in virtue quality, just application, and compassionate but just consequence.

Such principles have made possible a fruit blossoming into Laws far superior to other man-based opinion translated into 'law.' Such principles, therefore, are superior to and transcend secular law in quality and accuracy of justice in behalf of the creature of Rights, humans.

Secular law is minimal in establishing the least civilized behavior while elements of origin, Judeo-Christian, are not delimited to minimums but describe the fulfilling heights of human moral and ethical deeds and lifestyles.

The secular humanist, whose confidence in human behavior is limited to mediocrity and 'law,' are embarrassed (or should be) by comparisons drawn between secular minimums and Judeo-Christian unlimited virtue excesses; Transcendent Criteria! selah

To God be the Glory! Joel 3:14

Kyle Vernon said...

I wholeheartedly believe in your right to believe in whatever God, dogma, doctrine, or belief system you want. However, I do not share your values, nor do millions of others who live in this country. But I do not try to convince you that you are wrong. That your faith might be misplaced or that my God is better than your God. Why must religious people do so? I understand that many things that happen in today's society may not agree with your beliefs and that they may not even be the best for society. However, you are not my judge. You are not responsible for my actions. This is even supported in biblical scripture. Judge not lest ye be judged. But do you Christians ever remember that part? No. You are all too busy trying to foist your beliefs on others. And sadly, it appears that you are finally winning. The greatest thing about this country is its diversity. The many talents of many millions of immigrants with different backgrounds and beliefs is what built this country, not bigotry and religious control of government policy. So I say that if you don't like abortion, don't do it. If you want to display the ten commandments, fine, do it in your own home. You may even do so in your own business. But to do it in a place of government is to ostracize and demoralize those wonderful beings in this country who love being American but who simply profess allegiance to another faith. Please, by all means, try living as a Christian and mind your own actions rather than prostelytizing and trying to control other people's free thought and action. Its not your place. God gave us free will, right?

Ed Darrell said...

James Madison was successful in constructing a system in which religion plays an important role, as a motivator for the policy discussions and votes of individual people in the system.

That's what your employer meant, too. It's not that your employer should have required you to attend church, nor that he should have dictated to you what beliefs were okay to express on the job, but that you should manifest your inherent and internal morality in the good deeds and noble foundations for other actions you take on the job.

There is no movement to remove mentions of God from any public square -- and, in fact, the ACLU in recent months has won the right to put Christian displays on public courthouse areas during Christmas, quite the opposite of removing mention.

But there is a concerted effort to take over government to dictate religious faith to people. The former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court commandeered the building the court used to put up a coercive religious monument. He was so bent on enforcing his faith on others that he gave up his service to Alabama and the nation rather than obey the Alabama and federal constitutions.

We don't need a government that picks our religion for us, or which is delegated the authority to try to achieve salvation for us. As George Washington said, that is the duty of each citizen. We shouldn't ask the government to intervene between us and God.

It's against my religion.

Ed Darrell said...

James Madison was successful in constructing a system in which religion plays an important role, as a motivator for the policy discussions and votes of individual people in the system.

That's what your employer meant, too. It's not that your employer should have required you to attend church, nor that he should have dictated to you what beliefs were okay to express on the job, but that you should manifest your inherent and internal morality in the good deeds and noble foundations for other actions you take on the job.

There is no movement to remove mentions of God from any public square -- and, in fact, the ACLU in recent months has won the right to put Christian displays on public courthouse areas during Christmas, quite the opposite of removing mention.

But there is a concerted effort to take over government to dictate religious faith to people. The former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court commandeered the building the court used to put up a coercive religious monument. He was so bent on enforcing his faith on others that he gave up his service to Alabama and the nation rather than obey the Alabama and federal constitutions.

We don't need a government that picks our religion for us, or which is delegated the authority to try to achieve salvation for us. As George Washington said, that is the duty of each citizen. We shouldn't ask the government to intervene between us and God.

It's against my religion.