Beyond church-state separation: a fresh role for religion in public life

Whether shaped by religious faith or not, our world views are relevant to how we make public choices as well as personal ones.

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The Riverside Church in New York City has often been associated with progressive social movements.

Whether shaped by religious faith or not, our world views are relevant to how we make public choices as well as personal ones.

Recent holiday seasons often have been marked by predictable but unedifying debates over religious symbols in the public square. Maybe I just missed it, but mostly it seemed quiet on that front this year. I didn’t hear much — really anything — about manger scenes at the Capitol, Christmas trees at Sea-Tac, or carols in the school holiday program. Thank God.

But that is not to say that the public square is absent religious presence or influence. Just in the past week, for example, religion’s place in the public eye and discussion is evident in a host of ways.

First, we are heading toward our “Mormon Moment,” as Mitt Romney seems likely to be the Republican candidate for president. It’s not that Romney has made anything out of being Mormon. He avoids it. But inevitably, it comes up. Some evangelical Christians struggle with Romney’s faith, but there are indications that, for others in the religious conservative camp, it isn’t much of an issue. In Iowa, urban evangelicals seemed unfazed by Romney’s religion, while their country cousins continued to hold reservations.

Kenneth Starr, a high-profile evangelical who is President of the nation’s largest Baptist University, Baylor, just published a piece titled, “Can I Vote for Mormon?”  Starr (also the former special prosecutor in the Lewinsky affair) effectively said, “Yes,” and that a person’s religion is not the issue. 

Second, with Rick Santorum’s showing in Iowa we’ve heard a lot more about him and about how his Catholic faith and theology inform his candidacy. Various commentators have tutored us on the Catholic doctrine of “subsidiarity,” which in political terms means that the government that is smallest and closest to people is preferable to larger and more distant entities. Santorum is no Ayn Rand, libertarian type conservative. He’s more of the kind of conservative that believes social institutions have an important role in keeping us on the straight and narrow.

Third, when Gov. Christine Gregoire announced her support and sponsorship for marriage equality for gays last week she spoke of it as a matter of “personal belief” and mentioned discussing it with her Catholic bishop. She, along with a substantial number of other Catholics, disagree with the bishop — the bishops — on this matter. 

Other religious groups and leaders soon joined into the discussion. We hear most about the fundamentalist-conservatives of the Ken Hutcherson and Antioch Bible Church variety, who oppose gay marriage and seem to make good copy. Hutcherson claims, wrongly, that churches and clergy will be forced by the state to perform gay marriages.

We hear less about the many churches that are gay-friendly and applaud the governor’s action. My own denomination, the United Church of Christ, for example, started ordaining openly gay people in 1975. More than half of our two dozen congregations in the Seattle area are led by clergy who are gay or lesbian.

In larger terms, there is a shift occurring in how religion participates in public life. We are actually moving away from “separation of church and state” toward a new relationship or new era. I’d call it “diverse religious engagement/government impartiality,” which seems to me a good direction.

In other words, instead of “separation of church and state,” there are lots of religious voices and perspectives in the public square. There’s not really a “separation of church and state,” if by that is meant that religion has no place or presence in public life or public debate, nor in my judgment, should there be such a separation. The separation of church and state idea made more sense, ironically, when Protestant Christianity was culturally dominant in the U.S. and people more or less shared its values and ethos.

What’s emerging in the 21st century is an America that is increasingly diverse nation religiously and in terms of values and world views, whether religious or irreligious. In that landscape government is, as it should be, impartial with respect to religion. No most favored faith or world view. An open market of ideas. Such impartiality strikes me as an improvement over the idea of "separation of church and state," which is not the actual language of the Constitution or the First Amendment.

It's an improvement for two reasons. One, separation of church and state, actually favored the diffuse phenomenon of secularism in the public square. Religions are, among other things, ethical or values systems. But, so, too are secular world views, like free-market economics or materialism expressed as consumerism or scientism. All are value systems with particular understandings of what it means to be human and of right and wrong.

The second reason impartiality is an improvement over separation is that if people are religious, their religious beliefs will have, and should have, something to do with how they speak and act and live all of their lives, not just their private lives. Clearly, Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrate next week, thought his faith had bigger implications.

The separation idea that religion should be limited to the private or personal realm falsely truncates religion and its corollary ethics while it grants free rein to secular value systems and ideologies.

So Rick Santorum brings his Catholic subsidiarity into the public square. Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan preach Free Market ethics. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks of "the Beloved Community." And Barack Obama speaks “as a Christian” to Muslims in his 2009 Cairo speech. And some of us critique consumerism as an alternate faith.

The point is not that religion has no place in the public dialogue, but that in this country no one religion gets to be in charge or have special privileges or power. And that is as it should be.

We’re moving, by fits and starts, into a new era. The battles about manger scenes in public and courtroom plaques bearing the Ten Commandments are fading--as they should--relics of the dying era of cultural Christendom, when American culture did grant most-favored religion status to Protestant Christianity. But that’s pretty much over.

Government in this country is not to “establish” one or any religion whether legally or culturally. But neither it is to infringe upon the exercise of religion, which includes expressing how one’s faith envisions life and the nature of a good life.

Religious people, like secular people, should be free to speak of how their beliefs and related values guide them and inform their thinking and living in public as well as private. If they are persuasive to others, so be it; if others are unpersuaded or chose not to listen, so be that, too.

In the new era, religious people won’t be told to keep it to themselves, but they will be asked — and should be — to respect the rights of others to say their piece and offer their perspective.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.