“Separation of Church and State”: we sure hear that phrase a whole lot, don’t we? It’s often used by people who don’t have the foggiest what they’re saying. I think I blogged on this years ago, but my favorite silly story about the subject involves the time a (conservative!) local radio talk show host was opining about the fact that a local church had raised the Christian flag higher on a flagpole than the American flag (a good idea, frankly; why is it, in VBS, that we have kids pledge allegiance first to the country, and only then to the Savior and the Bible? Chaw on that awhile…). One point he made—the point that drove me through the roof and prompted a nice, but firm, call from my end to set him straight—was that somehow putting the Christian flag higher on a pole than the American flag violated the separation of church and state.

Yes, a guy on the radio actually said that.

Anyhoo, here’s an article I posted a response to recently:

Religion and the Constitution: The Real Battle We Face

I want to elaborate a bit on my response there, because we have people on the “secular” end of the spectrum who are scared that Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney is going to try to turn America into a “theocracy” (or more generally, that the “Religious Right”—whatever in the world that is—has theocracy as an aim). Then, we have Christian folks who say, “separation of church and state isn’t in the Constitution” (which is true), but then act as though Thomas Jefferson’s use of that phrase in writing to the Danbury Baptists is of little more value than the latest tabloid story on Paris Hilton. Uh, guys, ole Tom was there, you know? So perhaps he has a thing or two to tell us, whaddya think?

So let me wade in: I believe in the principle of separation of church and state, correctly defined, which it rarely is. The Constitution (which should be the law of the land but sadly isn’t) says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This is the “wall of separation”—and it’s a wall that protects the citizens of the country from having a state-sponsored religious faith, and that protects us from government intrusion into the free exercise of whatever faith we might choose. Some things that the Constitution doesn’t do, say, or even imply:

  • The exclusion of viewpoints that find their genesis in “religion” from the public square;
  • The restraint of people of faith from seeking office, or from speaking out on issues;
  • The restraint of members of our government from being active participants in their own faith
  • The passing of legislation that might have a moral or “religious” component to it
  • And so on. Some of these types of things are the things that our more secular friends tend to decry. In the article above, for instance, the fellow mentions drug laws as flowing from a religious base. He seems oblivious to the idea that perhaps drug laws might have a much broader purpose than the advancement of some imaginary “religious” program (I say this as a person who does not believe we are wise to fight the “Drug War” as we have, that we are throwing tons of good money after bad, that we need a wholly different approach to fighting the problem, and that decriminalizing marijuana would be a good start. But that’s a different post for a different time, my “inner Ron Paul” coming out.). The point is that it’s just plain silly to say that we should end the drug war because it’s an element of some “religion”. Of all the reasons I can think of, that ain’t on the list.

    All of that said, there are some bones I have to pick with my conservative brethren as well. Sometimes we end up fighting silly battles that aren’t worth fighting, and that have dubious constitutional support as well. I’ve not yet lost a moment’s sleep fighting over having a creche on public property—one way or the other. But what I do have a problem with is fighting to keep them there by using argumentation that places the creche on roughly the same par as Frosty and Santa. I remember the VMI case a few years back; I blogged on it. VMI cadets had for years prayed a prayer before mealtime, and a couple of cadets challenged it in court. The prayer was described by a VMI official, as best I can remember it, as being a “Rudolph Giuliani, apple pie, motherhood and Kate Smith type of prayer”, or similar wording. Questions: one, why on earth would a Christian ever want to pray such a prayer, and two, why would Christians get worked up about defending such “prayers” being prayed? No, I don’t support a “School Prayer Amendment” (I do support “equal time” legislation, though); what I support is Christian parents thinking long and hard about sending kids to our current public school system. But that too is a post for another day.

    Here’s the basic illustration I want to get to in order to make my point: those secularists who decry the spilling over of religion into government/politics, like the author of the above article, miss the whole point of how “religion” works. People who are not “people of faith” seem to typically think of “religion” as being one more “bucket” in the lives of people who are people of faith. It works something like this: I have my “religion” bucket, and my “politics” bucket, and my “relationships” bucket, and my “business” bucket, and so on. This stereotype is reinforced, by the way, by so many cultural factors, including the Andy Griffith Show. Andy and friends were occasionally shown in church, dressed up to the nines to hear a preacher deliver a message (remember the one where the preacher’s message was “relax”? A forerunner of today’s Joel Osteens…). Anyway, the rest of the time, there is little/no mention of God whatever. God’s put into the “Sunday morning, 11:00” bucket, and doesn’t even survive, generally, to the “Sunday Dinner” bucket (though in that episode, as I recall, the sermon topic did at least become the focus of the plot).

    So to the secular, the whole idea of church and state getting co-mingled involves the sloshing of religion out of the “religion bucket” and into the “government/politics” bucket. It’s almost like the old Reese’s candy commercial: “hey, you got your religion on my politics! Oh, yeah, you got your politics on my religion!” Except that secularists really don’t like the taste…

    The problem is that “religion” doesn’t work that way; it’s flawed thinking to take a “buckets” approach. What “religion” does—and for that matter, what all “non-religious” philosophies do—is to play a role (for the committed Christian, the foundational role) in providing the lens through which every other pursuit of life is seen. For the Christian, my faith in Jesus Christ affects (or, I should say, ought to affect) every aspect of my life. I can no more separate my “religion” from my “politics” than I could separate my eyes from the way I enjoy the Rockies (that analogy probably stinks, but it’ll do ’til I get a better one). I don’t see anything except through the viewpoint which has been thoroughly shaped by my faith.

    Secularists have no less a “religious” foundation for their lens than do people who identify with a “religion”; it’s just that some of these philosophies, while acting in the same way a “religion” does, are not seen as “religions”. Marxism functions in exactly the same way, for instance, as does secular humanism, and materialism (there’s of course some overlap between some of these philosophies), and so on. Yet because the adherents of Marxism don’t typically attend Marxist church service on Sunday mornings (they just stay home and read the NY Times and Newsweek—same thing), they aren’t “religious”. And if they aren’t “religious” in the first place, there’s no “religion” bucket out of which dreaded “religion” can get sloshed into their “politics” bucket.

    But the problem is, then, that the Mrs. Bills of the world have a very “religious” viewpoint, and it shapes their entire understanding of the role of government, their politics, etc. And they bring that viewpoint into their governing, just like Mike Huckabee, for instance, brought his viewpoint into everything he did as governor of Arkansas and, I hope, to everything he does as president of the United States.

    There’s more that could be written on this subject, but that’s enough for now…

    6 responses »

    1. Graham says:

      Very strong points.

      Personally, I find the idea of separation of church and state quite difficult to contemplate! I am imagining the secularists’ dream of no bishops in the House of Lords, the daily sessions of Parliament not being opened by prayer, and I wouldn’t be happy to see that.

    2. Byron says:

      It’s an American thang, dude…you wouldn’t understand. 🙂

    3. Graham says:

      I am just thinking about things like the Civil Partnerships Act 2004 and the Equality Act 2006 (the one that ensures that Christian-based adoption agencies cannot object to potential couples wanting to adopt, on the grounds that such a couple is a same-sex one).

      What I was wondering is this- do those who object to “people of faith” speaking out on political issues, also object to politicians with no religious faith voting on issues (such as the two Acts above) which directly affect churches or religious-based organisations?

    4. Graham says:

      Can I mention how non-separation of church and state works?

      The Crown & Parliament Recognition Act 1689 bans Roman Catholics, or anyone married to a Roman Catholic, from becoming the monarch (currently, Peter Phillips, the Queen’s eldest grandchild, is 11th in line to the throne. When he gets married, probably next year, he will not be anywhere in line to the throne!)

      The Act of Settlement 1700 goes further by requiring the monarch to be eligible to receive communion in the Church of England. At the time, and for nearly 300 years, this meant that the monarch had to be an Anglican. However, a piece of church legislation, the Admission to Holy Communion Measure 1972, relaxed the “only Anglicans can receive communion in the Church of England” rule, so there is nothing in law now to rule out, for example, a Baptist becoming King.

      Now, church legislation in the form of Measures cannot become law until they have been passed not only by the General Synod (the Church of England’s legislative assembly) but by both the House of Commons and House of Lords. This is one aspect of having an established church. However, as the 1972 Measure shows, church legislation can affect something very fundamental, e.g. who can become Head of State.

      The 1689 and 1700 Acts only affected the English throne- which doesn’t technically exist anymore. The Union with Scotland Act 1706 (and the more-or-less identical Union with England Act 1706 passed by the Scottish Parliament) extend these rules to the British throne that it created. However, the monarch has to preserve the presbyterian nature of the Church of Scotland.

      Note that I have not mentioned Wales. At the time, Wales was legally part of England and the Church of England was the established church in Wales. The Welsh Church Act 1920 disestablished the 4 diocese considered to be Welsh and turned these into the Church in Wales. Interestingly, the border between the Church of England and the Church in Wales doesn’t precisely match the Anglo-Welsh border!

      The Coronation Oath Act 1688 requires the monarch to promise at their coronation to uphold the “Reformed Protestant religion” and the Accession Declaration Act 1910 requires the monarch to announce to a meeting of both Houses of Parliament- as soon as possible after becoming monarch- that they are a Protestant.

      One consequence is that the 2 Archbishops and 24 other bishops sit in the House of Lords by right. The Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester (the diocese I live in) join the House of Lords upon taking up their ecclesiatical post, and the other 21 are simply the longest-serving ones.

      Of course, there are always calls from secularists for the bishops to be kicked out of the House of Lords. Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, who is drawing up plans for the reform of the House of Lords, has made clear that the bishops are staying- whatever reforms he comes up with.

      I can say that Michael Scott-Joynt, the Bishop of Winchester, is sound on moral isues. Whenever anything like euthanasia, embryo research, abortion etc. comes up, I know I can write to him and get a reply confirming that he will vote to uphold Christian values on these matters. I have no objection to his voting record.

      The other aspect is that Parliament has a say in church matters. This is normally in the form of approving or rejecting Measures from the Synod. This might seem odd or unfair, but before the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829, everyone in the House of Commons and all the non-bishops in the House of Lords were Protestant laymen, and most of them would be in church Sunday after Sunday, able to pick up the views from the pews- unlike bishops.

      The classic example of this working well is the proposed new Book of Common Prayer that the majority of bishops wanted to be introduced in the 1920s. The Oxford Movement of the late 19th century saw the rise of the Anglo-Catholics who introduced excessive ritual, prayers for the dead, and held to an unevangelical view of communion. The proposed BCP was of this stance- and Parliament kicked it out. So, this was the case of politicians- listening to the ordinary people in the Church of England, and as the people’s representatives- saving the Church of England from its bishops!

      It doesn’t work as well now, as more militant politicians are keen to use Parliament to take the initiative on church legislation. In the late 1980s and early 1990s there were the agonised debates in the Church of England on whether women should become priests- and so, some women MPs were suggesting short-circuiting the process and introduce a quick piece of legislation allowing women priests, without seeking Synod’s approval.

      The Civil Partnerships Act 2004 set a dangerous precedence, as it has an impact on church doctrine. And this is when the non-separation of church and state doesn’t work well.

    5. Byron says:

      Wow, just so different from what we have on our shores. Cool to read, though; thanks!

    6. Graham says:

      I think that both separation and non-separation of church and state are things that work well when they work properly, and can be disastrous when they aren’t done properly.

      And we are all the products of our backgrounds. It is always interesting how people can hold the same theological views and end up being different politically.

      For example, I am strongly against any attempts to disestablish the Church of England, and any idea of abolishing the monarchy would be unthinkable. Yet, I suppose that if the Church of England had been disestablished before my conversion, I wouldn’t have known anything different, and wouldn’t have wanted to see an established church.

      I think a very powerful message was sent out when the Scottish Parliament was set up and in its first few years met in a building owned by the Church of Scotland. Indeed, Lord Steel presided over the Scottish Parliament in the same room as his father once presided over a meeting of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

      And I think that when establishment works as it should, it says that “These are God’s values- these are what we build our nation on” and makes it clear that the Executive is accountable in two directions- towards people, and towards God. When it works well.

      When it doesn’t work well, the church runs the risk of being turned into a political football.

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