A divinely pagan state? (part 1)

It’s election time!  That means the national discourse inevitably turns to the relationship between the Church and state. The discussion often yields more questions and opinions than firm answers.  What, exactly, is the separation of church and state?  How do the two relate to one another?  Is one higher than the other?  What does the Bible say about all of this?  What does the Constitution of the United States of America say about all of this?

The Constitution

I’m not a Constitutional scholar.  However, in my rudimentary understanding of religion in the Constitution, the Constitution is concerned, primarily, with two things.  First, it’s concerned with the free exercise of religion, or what we call religious freedom.  People in the U.S. have the freedom to practice their religion without interference from the government.  This right is not absolute in this way; In the practice of your religion, you do not have the right to abridge the rights of other citizens.  For example: If human sacrifice is part of your religion, you can’t legally practice that aspect of your religion because it denies another person the inalienable right to life.  Other than that, you can worship as you please without being hassled by the state.  Of course, this is the ideal vision.  Some would argue that religious discrimination continues and a point could be made in that direction.  Second, the Constitution is concerned with the establishment of a State or government Religion.  This was common in Europe, where the co-mingling of church and state led to many abuses of private liberties.  The authors of the Constitution wanted to avoid the many pitfalls and threats to personal religious practice that a state church would, in their view, inevitably breed.

These two principles are deemed by most to be wise and essential to the American way of life. They are as important as the right to free speech.  I am not aware, personally, of anyone – either liberal or conservative – that takes issue with the anti-establishment clause or the right to the free exercise of religion.  The challenge is that these are negative rules. By negative I mean that they say what the Government cannot do.  That means there is a whole lot of grey when it comes to the positive rights of the church, which derive from the collective individual rights of the church’s people.

These shades of grey raise the question; How much influence can religion, and/or religious people, have on the Government?  Again, there are two voices I hear on this question.  From the perspective of some religious people, it’s their duty to try to shape the nation in the direction of their religious convictions.  They seek political power toward the end of using legislation to shape the country into a ‘Christian’ nation.  They see the separation of church and state as the protection of the Church from the influence of the state, not a prohibition of the Church influencing the state.  Others see such influence as an imposition of the Church on the state and, by extension, citizens that do not share that particular religious perspective.  It could be argued that the imposition of any religious framework on the people, through the vehicle of legislation, is contrary to the anti-establishment clause and abridges the rights of people to practice the religion of no-religion.

JFK Makes Santorum Sick

John F Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic to be elected President of the United States of America.  But his Roman Catholicism was a significant hurdle to his becoming President.   On September 12, 1960 JFK gave an important speech that has shaped our collective understanding of the relationship between church and state (click here to read the transcript).  In that speech, JFK outlines the relationship between church and state as such:

  • No one should be denied public office based solely on their religion, or lack there of.
  • No one in public office should let their church tell them how to decide public matters.
  • As a public official the greatest concern should be doing what is in the national interest.
  • If there is every a time when the national interest is in conflict with deeply held religious convictions, they should resign that office.
  • Public funds should not be used to support parochial schools, religious institutions, and so on.
  • The separation between church and state is absolute.

Rick Santorum, Republican candidate for President, drew fire last week for saying that this speech made him sick.  Rick Santorum, also a Roman Catholic, takes a different approach than JFK.  In Santorum’s approach, his faith is the foundation for what he believes is in the national interest.  He would not disagree with JFK in that if the national interest conflicted with his deeply held religious beliefs one should resign.  Rather, he seems to operate from a position that his deeply held religious beliefs, and the conservative ideologies he attaches to them, are always in the national interest, even if the nation doesn’t think so.

These are two very different approaches, from different candidates, in different eras.  It’s a useful comparison, however, because they are both of the same faith. It’s also useful to see how different people, running for the same office, think differently.  JFK operated in an era where the institutional church still had power and influence.  He’s clearly addressing a Christendom mentality.  Santorum lives and moves in a Post-Christendom era.  When the church as institution has no power, folks who think they should often try to smuggle it back into the public sphere through personal faith.

What does the Bible say about the state?

This is the million dollar question for those that claim the Bible as the foundation for their political engagement.  The challenge is that there isn’t much intelligent discourse on this matter in places like CNN, FOX News, and so on.  Next post I will tackle John Howard Yoder’s framework for the relationship between church and state as set forth in Discipleship as Political Responsibility.


8 thoughts on “A divinely pagan state? (part 1)

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