In 1802, Thomas Jefferson penned a letter to the Danbury Baptists in which he used the phrase “separation of church and state” to describe the intent of the religion clauses of the First Amendment. Nowhere does the phrase appear in the Constitution itself, but Jefferson chose to call it a “wall” of separation to indicate the solid conviction of the Founding Fathers who had come to America to escape religious suppression and seek religious freedom. The horrors of their history would happen no more, not in America, where government would guarantee people basic freedoms to live their lives, raise their families and practice their faiths.
Advocates of separation argue there is a clear distinction between the two institutions and never should they mix. Opponents argue that government should accommodate certain elements of religion as long as it doesn’t act to endorse a particular one.
In some ways, the government already accommodates religion. The words “In God We Trust” are on our currency. Religious artwork adorns government buildings, including the United States Supreme Court itself. We pledge allegiance as one nation “under God.” But recently, the two views have been slamming into each other. Consider the influence of faith-based groups in the recent presidential election, the death of Terri Schiavo and the ongoing debate about the selection of the next Supreme Court justices.
Who’s right? How far will it go? As a means of continuing education, we asked several Xavier faculty: Should they mix? Should religion have a role in government or public policy? What limitations, if any, should be imposed? At what point does it cross the line of the First Amendment ban on the establishment of a state religion?
Thomas Kennealy, S.J. Associate Dean, Colleges of Social Sciences and Arts and Sciences
Religion has a very significant role to play in the formation of public policy. Religion should act as a moral voice in society to bring to issues of the day a spiritual, religious, moral and ethical point of view that’s extremely valuable, not to say essential. People of strong religious convictions really feel those convictions play a very big part in the formation of their opinions, attitudes and point of view. That’s probably where the tension is coming from today between what author Steven Carter calls the secular point of view and the opinion of those people particularly in the evangelical movement for whom religion is extremely important and whose values are derived to a significant degree from their religious views.
I feel strongly that religion does have a role as a point of view that makes a significant contribution in the formation of public policy, because the issues are often moral and do have religious and spiritual context.
I think the church can bring something valuable to the discussion. This was the view of certain Founding Fathers. John Adams felt that religion and religious people do have something to contribute to the public debate, and the church itself has to be a part of the discussion because it will help us balance other things by bringing what is the moral voice of the church to bear.
There are some safeguards. The First Amendment of the Constitution says that government should not have a state-sponsored church. I think it’s very wise because it is appropriate for the church to go about its business and the state to go about its business. In the case of an established church, you would be favoring one church over all the others, which would be an unworkable scheme in the United States.
But I do think in a society such as ours, there has to be practiced by everybody a whole degree of tolerance. Our democratic system works only to the extent that people of religion or no religion are respectful of one another and their point of view and particularly of other people’s consciences. I think it’s important the churches avoid what I would call party politics. It’s not good for churches to support a political party or candidate because it’s moving away from discussions of issues and moving toward personalities and specific candidates. I think the church’s role is to help formulate good policy that is moral and ethical, and it should stick to that.
Associate Professor of History
From the vantage point of history, it appears religious freedom results in conflicts among religious groups, poses threats to communities of faith, and confronts individuals and religious bodies with uncomfortable choices. Yet, limiting religious freedom in a multicultural polity by creating links between religion and the state raises far graver dangers by investing a particular religious body with power over others. This does not mean we should separate our religious values from our participation in the government as citizens. Rather, we should acknowledge that public policies embody values and that our values may differ. While we cannot simply apply lessons from the past to different contemporary conditions, I offer three examples from American history to suggest questions we might ask when we think about connections between church and state.
First, it is true that many colonists were drawn here by the promise of religious freedom, but the meanings of that term were complex. For the Puritans, it was freedom for their own beliefs that would enable them to build a shining model of Puritan values. Catholics seeking refuge in Maryland, however, had been persecuted by the English in the European context of state and religious rivalries. The Maryland Act Concerning Religion guaranteed toleration to Christian immigrants to the colony in order to protect its Catholic minority. Complete religious freedom was not viewed as positive in its own right until the late 18th century. Even then it remained a radical idea.
An example of the ways religious values shaped American politics comes from the 19th-century abolitionists. In the early 1830s, white opponents of slavery were a tiny group of evangelical Protestants who believed slaveholding was a sin, and they had a moral obligation to challenge slave owners and the government’s support. The abolitionists’ unremitting attacks finally resulted in emancipation. Their moral absolutism called white society’s attention to the cruelty of slavery in a way that had not been possible before. But their religious emphasis on sin may have prevented them from engaging in discussions about the future of emancipated slaves in a racist republic.
Finally, the consequences of religious prejudice illustrate the dangers of placing government power in the service of particular religious institutions. The same 19th-century Protestants who protested slavery were often hostile to Catholics. Catholicism was attacked as an “alien” religion opposed to American individualist values. Anti-Catholicism was reflected in local government policies requiring use of the King James Bible in schools and in cities such as Cincinnati, which provided funding for “non-sectarian” Protestant charities but not for Catholic ones.
People of faith are called to bring their moral values into the public arena, but intellectual and theological differences need not translate into social conflict if we accept that complexity and variety enrich our understanding of our debates.
Professor of Philosophy; Director, Philosophy, Politics and the Public
Starting in the 1670s, there was real tension in American life between religious ideals and material prosperity. That’s a fundamental theme that hasn’t really disappeared. We are today the most materialistically secure country in the world but also one that is still looking for its religious center, a kind of spiritual center.
The Founding Fathers believed matters of religion are private, not political. One of the fundamental features of modern democratic political theory is there’s a domain of private conscience and rights that is technically out of political bounds—the freedom of conscience and religion.
So the answer to if religion should have a role in government is no, unless we want to seriously rethink what democratic practice should really mean. There’s a fundamental tension in the American culture between the conditions prior to the establishment of the United States, when religion and politics were fused, and the condition after the foundation of the U.S., when the political doctrines the Founding Fathers used had to place religion outside of political consideration. So it didn’t matter what religion you practiced, you could still be a citizen, whereas in Europe there were nations where unless you were a member of the official state religion, you couldn’t be a full citizen.
Today, there’s the desire for that kind of spiritual center that Americans long for, but I don’t see that happening politically. I hope eventually people will see you can’t institute a politically sanctioned religion without jeopardizing the democratic principles upon which our government is based. There are forces in American culture, i.e. the Constitution, that would make sure that doesn’t happen, all the way to the Supreme Court, which is probably a very careful protector of the Constitution.
Director for Government Relations
I think an important distinction has to be made between values, even maybe moral values, and organized religion. There is no doubt that a government, especially like ours, is formed on anything less than some set of core values, and in some cases we use the pursuit of those values as justification for some pretty strong actions, like going to war. It becomes an issue when those values become institutionalized in some kind of organized religion that then begins to attempt to impose its system of the expression of those values into government. The most recent and very prominent example is the government intrusion into the Terri Schiavo case. Threaded throughout our system of laws is a high value placed on life. But where this particular debate seemed to pass over the line into religion was when nationally organized religious groups began to try to impose their particular will on public policy by encouraging the governor, the president and Congress to get involved.
What seems to have been occurring in the last decade about the influence of organized religion is a couple of things. Religious institutions have begun to organize and become politically visible, active and effective. They’re given credit for having influence over both electoral and legislative politics. They have become players in that game of electoral politics. I don’t know if there’s anything wrong with that. They’re another interest group out there influencing decisions. They’ve also had influence in legislative politics. They know how to get candidates elected, they know how to monitor and effect public policy. Thirdly is in the judicial branch where they feel the courts are making policy, not just interpreting laws, that their decisions have a significant impact on our culture and our values.
Religion does have a role, and I have a hard time finding a reason why they shouldn’t be part of the debate. That’s all they’re asking for. I guess if there’s a point at which their influence on electoral politics and policy-making actually infringes on someone else’s freedom of religion, that’s probably where they cross over. The clearest point of demarcation is if they’re imposing not their values but their religious beliefs, but how do you distinguish between them?
The Constitution tends to express itself through values. For many, those values are arrived at through a set of religious beliefs. I would say the framers saw the power religion could have on someone’s freedom of choice.
Professor of Philosophy; Chair, Department of Philosophy
Religion is going to have a role insofar as people came here because of their religious beliefs. They wanted to exercise them, and that’s in the public sphere. It’s a good thing. It’s part of what makes us the U.S.
The question of the establishment of religion is another thing. The Constitution says we’re to have free exercise of religion but no establishment of religion, which is absolutely proper. But to say there shouldn’t be an influence of religion on politics would be incorrect. Many of the things characteristic of the U.S.—abolition, civil rights—bore much of their strength from religious beliefs.
Obviously, if we had a president saying this was a Christian country, and I’m a Jew, I would get alarmed. But you can also get alarmed if there is a denial of the role of Christianity or the Judeo-Christian tradition. The exercise of religion is extremely important, and in those countries where there is a loss of religious observance, I think those nations are in a state of spiritual, intellectual and cultural decline. I worry about the marginalization of religion from public life. We’ve become so secular that any discussion of religion is seen as a threat. So there’s a danger of impoverishing our intellectual life by denying the historical role of religion, and it’s the same thing in our political life. The idea that we are all equal goes back to the scriptures, and that is the basis for democracy and the assumption that all humans deserve to be free. What happens when we get rid of that is tyranny. The two greatest tyrannies of the 20th century are Communism and Nazism.
I also think if very religious people feel they’re being abused, that will tend to make them more vocal and more forceful. To a certain degree we are seeing it now. The answer here is to remind secularists they need to be tolerant. And religious people need to be tolerant, too. It is a kind of intolerance of a certain way of thinking. We do need to calm down a bit.
Professor Emeritus, Theology
Should religion and government mix? Absolutely. Religion by its very nature is an experience that wants to speak to what’s going on in this world in order to influence it. A religious person who understands the message of Jesus or Moses or the writers of the Torah or the Holy Koran is by the very nature of his or her identity going to want to have a say in how the laws of the land are made and what they are.
In our Constitution, it’s forbidden that our government identify itself with any one religion. If a government prefers one religion, that means the forces of other religions are subordinated—they aren’t going to count—and that’s contrary to democracy. But what’s even more important, for a religion to be preferred by the government usually means that the religion ends up in the back pocket of the government, being used by the government to further the government’s policies. That’s very dangerous.
If you look at history, you can see the relationship between church and state has followed the model of the sacred canopy under which the government carries out its programs. Religion is used to give the divine seal of approval for what the government is doing. This is a fundamental abuse of religion. The fundamental role of religion is to be a voice of warning to the tendency of governments—kings, ayatollahs, presidents—to make themselves more important than God, to be corrupted by their own power. Religion is there to say, “Who do you think you are? God? Don’t you realize only God is God? And only God commands the full allegiance of the people?” The king or the president has to be criticized all the time. That’s religion’s role.
So when we have the American flag in our churches, that’s dangerous because it’s identifying your nation with your religion. We Christians who feel that the message of Jesus Christ is being used to justify policies contrary to his message have to stand up and say, “This is an abomination.” Just as Muslims are trying to say Osama Bin Laden doesn’t represent the Koran, we have to say many of our government’s policies don’t represent what we understand to be the message of Jesus.
Professor of History
I do believe that religion has a role to play in politics, if only to inject some consideration of ethics and ends into our debates. Religious ideas can serve to elevate our discourse above a mere calculation of interest or the manipulation of voting/identity groups. Religious thinkers should also consider the impact of their principles on social development, and political debate encourages that.
But religious ideas should be given the same status as other sorts of ideas and not be held up as trump cards or a means to end debate or claim certainty. We certainly do not want to have one single, civic religion. Nor do we want a watery, universal religious consensus, bland enough to include everyone. I believe religious thinkers should stand for something but also have respect for other religious traditions and for other religious thinkers. This is what Josiah Royce meant when he spoke of “loyalty to loyalty,” a respect for the loyalty that others have to a set of values and principles. We must also, of course, respect the right of others to their own religious ideas or their rejection of religion entirely. Civil liberties and civil rights remain paramount, in my view.
I prefer to live in a secular rather than a religious state. Within those parameters, I do believe religion can enrich and even elevate the level of our political debate (it wouldn’t take much to do that). Religion in politics today, however, appears largely in the form of self-righteousness and debate-killing certainty. I have a great deal of trouble understanding this. The last thing my religion (I am a practicing Catholic, active in my parish) gives me is a sense of self-righteousness. Instead it continually holds up to me my failure to live up to my own stated values. Religion does not provide me with easy answers or certain knowledge, but rather a nagging sense of my own limitations, my own mistakes and errors. It therefore serves as a much-needed (but, alas, insufficient) guard against self-righteousness, a continual reminder that I have been wrong and selfishly motivated in the past, and that I might be yet again. In that form, I believe religion has a great deal to offer in our political debate.
Professor of Theology; Chair, Department of Theology
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as I understand it, permits religious groups not only freely to practice their religion, but also freely to express their judgments on social and political issues. If other “interest groups” have the freedom to speak their minds and even the freedom to “petition” or lobby the government concerning legislation, so, too, does religion. To categorically deny religion a voice in the public sphere, therefore, would violate the rights of religious people and would violate the Constitution.
On the other hand, we must be mindful of the fact that our country is pluralistic and diverse and that we have a duty to respect the conscience and human dignity of others. American citizens practice as many as 1,200 different religions; some American citizens practice no religion. The First Amendment prohibits the federal government from establishing a state religion. It would, therefore, be inappropriate for the government to establish laws or set public policy solely on the basis of the religious convictions or arguments of one or more religious groups, especially when such arguments and convictions conflict with those of other citizens concerning the nature of what is true and right.
The challenge facing America’s religions is whether they are able to formulate arguments for their vision of public policy and the social good that can win the support of those who do not share their specific religious motivation or convictions. Religion’s tools for shaping public policy must be reason and persuasion, not coercion or the violation of the rights of others. As the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom” declared, the truth “cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.” Our dignity as human beings, I believe, requires that all of us seek the truth and act responsibly in accord with the truth we have discovered. This search for the truth, however, is aided by open and free dialogue with others, including those who don’t belong to our social or religious group. In the process of freely exercising their religious and civil rights, religious people are morally bound “to have respect both for the rights of others and for their own duties toward others and for the common welfare of all.” Conversely, religious people are owed that same respect by others. Mutual respect and civility are sorely needed in today’s contemporary debates about the social and moral order.
Director for Graduate Services; Theology Instructor
I think the founding fathers were trying to escape a situation where the government said you had to be of a certain religion. But I don’t think they were attempting to separate someone’s faith and their conscience from decisions they make in public life. Your faith should be reflected in the work you do.
I felt as though John Kerry was privatizing his faith by saying that his church believes that abortion was wrong and personally he was not advocating abortion, but he didn’t feel he could impose his faith on the community especially in an elected position. That’s too simplistic because we are our faith, and who we are and what we believe is always impacting the community. To simply say that he didn’t feel he could impose an article of his religion on Supreme Court justice selections is too simplistic. On the other hand, I feel like George Bush in his discussion about the issue ran the other risk of not balancing the approach saying that my private faith is what everyone should have. There’s a balancing act that I didn’t see either candidate doing.
I would say there’s a distinction between religion and faith, that faith is something that begins with the individual. Then you go to the realm of religion. Most of us tend to take that belief system and follow it, like Catholicism, so I would say that yes, faith does play a part in our political and public life and to deny that is overly simplistic. If I’m a politician and I have to vote on a Supreme Court nominee, I don’t believe that I’m imposing my religion on others if I say I don’t support this nominee for a number of reasons and one of those reasons is based on my faith.
But on the flip side it would be wrong for me to introduce a bill that everybody should be Catholic in the U.S. What Republicans are doing in Congress in response to what they believe are judges imposing their beliefs in the courtroom, I think that it’s not about making sure that judges are Christian or are Muslim, it’s about a dialogue that gets people in touch with the fact they are making decisions based on values. That’s the disagreement I had with Bush’s campaign. It polarized things and made John Kerry the enemy. They were trying to put him out there as this person who wanted to have abortion on demand. I don’t think that’s what he was saying. However he needs to be engaged in a debate about whether he really can separate his faith from his politics. I don’t think you can do that.