Monday, August 21, 2006

Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State

Brent Walker, the current executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee, expresses his interpretation of the history of the church/state relationship in American history in the article linked by John below. [Interesting that he feels the need to call the things he disputes "Lies" (and his opponents, by implication, liars) rather than errors or mistakes.] His position is hardly undisputed. Michael Novak, who with his daughter, recently published Washington's God summarized another interpretation in an article in First Things:
The early Americans were not only the Virginians, but also the Pennsylvanians, who in some ways solved some problems of religious liberty even more successfully, and the men of Massachusetts, who put in place yet another alternative. When, together, the Founders put together the Constitution of the United States in 1787, and when they added the Bill of Rights in 1792, they declared the federal Congress incompetent to make any law respecting the establishment of religion or inhibiting the free exercise thereof. This is the way in which they provided for the so-called "separation of church and state." They did not want the federal Congress to impose any one religion on them. They took the government out of the business of religion.

In this way, too, they prevented any one religion from becoming the official "“established" and in some way mandatory religion of the people as a whole. (An individual state could have an established religion, and some did, for a generation or so, but the practice soon proved to be impracticable and irksome to both the church and state.) Experience showed them that both the church and the state prospered more when the officials of the church did not make political decisions with the authority of the state and when the state did not make authoritative religious statements.

Certainly, the churches have prospered better under such a regime in America than the more or less established churches of Europe. The American solution, however, is not properly described as the "separation of church and state."” Its actual practice is more like an "“accommodation,"” each treating the other to public acts of mutual exposure and mutual respect. At many religious ceremonies, officials of the state are present in formal ways. At many state functions, ceremonies begin with a prayer and often conclude with a religious blessing. Quite often a sermon by a clergyman is written into the program. Above all, politicians in America speak often of God, and sometimes with observable seriousness and devotion, —and also sometimes in a more or less perfunctory way. But speak of God they almost all do, especially on formal political occasions.

It has often been remarked, for instance, that President George W. Bush seems unusually serious about religion and speaks of God fairly openly. But close observers have also noted that President Bill Clinton used to speak about God even more often than Bush and was perhaps even rather more ostentatious in being in church each Sunday. In fact, every American president has felt the duty to speak of God, since that is what the American people want and expect of them.

Still, although the "separation of church and state"” is in part a misnomer, it does point to an important difference of function and public role. But that "“separation"” is not the same thing as demanding an end to the interpenetration of religion and society. Church and state do not cover the same territory as religion and society. Church and state are narrower, institutional concepts. Citizens have a right to the free exercise of their religion in private and in the full range of the public activities of civil society. They also have a right to follow their religious conscience in public life, consistent with fidelity to their public duties and to the Constitution of the United States. And they have a right to argue in the public square, in accord with the rules of democratic give-and-take and the civic virtues of civility, for their own convictions, religious or secular, about the full range of issues of our common life, including laws concerning marriage, birth, and death. Civic life can be quite alive with religion, the more so for being uncoerced by the state.

To present a few samples of how the American accommodation of religion and society, church and state, have actually worked out in practice, let me mention that in the earliest days of Washington, D.C., beginning with the Jefferson Administration (1800-1808), the largest church service in the whole United States was held in the Capitol Building every Sunday, with music provided at government expense by the U.S. Marine Band. President Jefferson was often in attendance. Both before and after Jefferson, both the Congress and the presidents have often by decree urged Americans to pause for a Day of Thanksgiving, or Fasting and Humiliation in an hour of need.
It has always seemed to me to be a perverse reading of the First Amendment, that the rights of a political or religious group might demand that someone else "shut up." Neither the right to free speech nor "free exercise" include anything about a right "not to hear." The answer to bad speech is more speech, not less. There is nothing about hearing a prayer with which I disagree that forces me to do anything. Coercion is only involved if I am prevented from expressing my views.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated. I will gladly approve any comment that responds directly and politely to what has been posted.