Thursday, March 1, 2012

Separation of Church and State offers Freedom to be Religious in the Public Arena

People laugh, but I wonder. If we aren’t really supposed to take Rick Santorum’s view about religion in the public world seriously, then why are there so many people cheering him on?

Whether or not he wins or loses in the various state primaries and caucuses, the issue of church and state and the place of various faith communities in a pluralistic culture remain.

I’ve blogged about these things before. After all, the name of this blog is “Conversations on the Church’s vocation in the Public World.” Now these issues are before us, and all twisted up. We need to get our history straight. If Rick Santorum feels like throwing up when he hears John F. Kennedy’s speech, then Santorum doesn’t know his history. In the fall of 1960 JFK needed to make clear that should he become president of the United States, the pope would not be dictating policy of this nation. There would be “absolute” separation.
Mr. Santorum, now saying he would take back his words that the speech made him want to throw up, has, however, gone even further by insinuating that only non-religious people can have a voice in the public square and that the voices of people of faith (e.g. conservative evangelical Christians) would be excluded by adhering to separation of church and state.

The words, “separation of church and state” indeed are not in the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson wrote them in response to a letter of October 7, 1801, from the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptist Association, in which they, “rejoicing” in his “election to office” said, “Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty: that Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals; that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions,” and added, “But, sir, our constitution of government is not specific.”

Thomas Jefferson responded: “Gentlemen….believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God…I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature would ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state.” He concluded, “I reciprocate your kind prayers…and tender you for yourselves and your religious association, assurances of my high respect and esteem.”

There are various kinds of separation: absolute, functional, institutional, transvaluative, equal. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in its constitution (4.03n) pledges to “work with civil authorities in areas of mutual endeavor, maintaining institutional separation of church and state in a relation of functional interaction.” That’s another way of saying that we hold to both the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First amendment; we also believe that all faith communities are called to work together for the common good, yes, carry out our various “vocations” in the public world.

Barack Obama, in a keynote address at the Call to Renewal’s Building a Covenant for a New American Conference in Washington, D.C., in 2006, told his own faith background story, of an adult working as a community organizer in Chicago. He saw Christians “who knew their book.” He said, “the black church understands in an intimate way the Biblical call to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and challenge powers and principalities....I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world. As a source. Of hope.”

Obama went on to say people “need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practices. …it wasn’t the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was the Baptists. …It was the forbearers of the evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religion….” His speech goes on at length concluding with “a hope that we can live with one another in a way that reconciles the beliefs of each with the good of all.” A worthy goal!

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