I have a long running, intermittent conversation with one of my friends about separation of Church and State and how, exactly, to draw the line.
My two or three regular readers know that I am adamant that the State should not prescribe nor endorse any religion; furthermore, history makes it very clear that the United States of America was not founded as a Christian nation.
Indeed, the fourth amendment is explicit: the government may neither endorse nor restrict religion (though I suspect that certain more outre practices, such as, to choose an absurd example, human sacrifice, would not be protected):
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
There can be no argument that a public school teacher’s leading a prayer or, in a devotional context, reading a Bible verse is “establishment of religion.”
Whether or not a Christmas tree in the public square or Christmas lights on the streetlamps is “establishment of religion” is, so far as I am concerned, murkier. It looks more like recognition of the religious roots of the Christmas holiday. Attempts to legislate on such issues gets into the murky area of divining the intent of those who mount the tree, the lights, or the nativity scene. The Supreme Court’s rulings have been similarly murky on such issues.
That murkiness has left lower courts with no real guidance on this issue, so,
if when some true (dis)believer sues a municipality on such a display, the lower courts are apt to rule just about any way. Fear of litigation therefore leads to really stupid actions, such as this one, which amount to trying to deny the obvious, that Christmas, underneath all the hype, a birthday celebration.
Monday’s Radio Times investigated this topic, amongothers, regarding the place of Christianity in public life. From their website:
A call for social justice activism among Christians. We talk with TONY CAMPOLO whose newest book is Letters to a Young Evangelical: Art of Mentoring. Campolo is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Eastern University in St. David’s, Pennsylvania. He is also an ordained minister, having served American Baptist Churches in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and presently serves as associate pastor of the Mount Carmel Baptist Church in West Philadelphia.
You can listen here (Realplayer).
Even though the government is enjoined from establishing religion, the individual is unrestricted in exercising it (subject to issues of the public peace), which leads to the question, what happens in the voting booth? In other words, in the public square, how do we reconcile the actions of the believer, which arguably will be informed by his or her faith, with the responsibility to respect the free exercise of other believers of other faiths and sub-faiths.
In the comment to the post to which I linked at the beginning of this article (here’s the link again), Opie quite correctly pointed out that, throughout this country’s history, religious persons have acted to change public policy from motives founded in their faith and asks rhetorically
Should we evangelicals not vote? Should we vote, but only by his morals and not our own? Should we be disenfranchised?
The challenge warrants an answer. Not my answer, for it is a challenge to all Americans to grapple with the place of religious belief in secular public life. (And, of course, the answer is “No” to all three questions.)
But it leads me to explore the issue–what are the boundaries of separation of church and state in be political arena, particular for voters?
I resolve the question for myself–for no one else–for myself with the following guidelines. The musings below are written from a Christian perspective, because that is my perspective. I welcome others’ thoughts:
To vote for someone or to support a policy that is intended to advance a religion along the way of being “established,” that recognized by the state as either the de facto or de jure“official” religion, violates the social contract that the Constitution of the United States embodies. It directly counters the will of the Founders and is, in the truest since, unAmerican.
That overrides any other guidelines.
Also unAmerican is refusing to consider (note that I did not say “support”) persons or policies unless they receive the imprimatur of certain religious groups. This goes dangerously far to applying a religious test to public policy, which is also banned in the Constitution.
Voting for a candidate because you agree with his or her public policy positions for whatever reason, including religious conviction, is okay. Sincere religious belief will infuse all the actions of the believer and cannot be compartmentalized.
Claims that God is on someone’s side is grounds for suspicion. Believers attempt to be on God’s side, but do not boast of it. Consider Matthew 6: 5-6:
5: And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
6: But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
A corollary to this is that those who “pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets“–those who make a show of their piety–should be viewed with suspicion.
Unfortunately for those of us who favor hard analysis, much of this comes down to the attitudes and motivations of the individuals as they act politically.
But we do not have access to attitudes and motivations. There is no little window in the backs of our heads in which others can peer to see what’s actually going on in there.
We have access only to actions and deeds, and from them must infer the attitudes and motivations that underly them.
Footnote: I find Andrew Sullivan’s coinage to label those who are “trying to bully their way around the political world” intriguing. I would not use it, but I find it intriguing.