Thursday, March 08, 2012

Retire the Wall of Separation Metaphor

So Jim Burkee, a political science professor at Concordia (just down the road from me), wrote a column in Sunday's Journal Sentinel reacting to Rick Santorum's statement that reading John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech on the separation of church and state made him want to "throw up."

Two things. First, I've met Jim Burkee and he's a bright guy. Second, Santorum's comment was  overwrought.

But still ....


Criticism of Kennedy's speech as offering a over drawn view of the separation of church and state and a miserly view of the relationship between faith and public life did not originate with Rick Santorum. It is a political speech given for political purposes but it can be read to suggest that faith has nothing to say about policy and that whatever the government does or sponsors should be utterly devoid of religion. Burkee echoes this when he calls on conservatives to "build high the wall" of separation.

I have done a lot of work in this area and have become convinced of two things. First, the wall of separation is an overused metaphor that is almost entirely unhelpful in thinking about any of the real issues about the relationship between faith and public life. A wall, of course, cannot be breached by those on either side. If religion must avoid the concerns of politics then politics must avoid the concerns of religion.

That's a workable proposition only if you take a very narrow view of the province of either religion or politics. Once you recognize that religion is not simply about prayers on Sunday or making a series of claims about extratemporal matters unrelated to how to live life on earth, only the most modest government will remain on its side of the wall.

And once you allow (as we almost all do) that government has a role to play in educating children and providing social services or fighting wars, it is in religion's business. If you want a state as active as modern Progressives, you are all over it.

Kennedy's latent assumption was that religion is largely private. But that's a hotly contested view - one that few religious people believe. Even in his own time, much of the impetus behind the civil rights movement was religious. Did he really mean - and does Jim Burkee mean - that figures like Martin Luther King should have "offered no advice" to political leaders.

I agree with Jim that too much interaction between government and religion does religion no good (even if I'm completely unpersuaded that the decline of Christianity in Europe has anything to do with state support), but answering difficult questions about the extent to which religious views might be expressed in forums associated with the government, the proper cultural norms surrounding religious arguments for public policy (there are no legal limitations) and the extent to which government policy may intrude on religious practice and conscience are not readily answered by resort to a metaphor. There must be certain separations between religion and state, but referring to a "wall" that must be "high" and "absolute" doesn't help in deciding what they ought to be.

9 comments:

Phil Scarr (muttmutt) said...

I guess I look to Thomas Jefferson's most cogent statement on the clear separation of church and state found in The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom which states, in part,

Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.
My reading of this act indicates a strong belief on the part of Mr. Jefferson that nobody should have religion imposed upon them for any reason as it relates to the practice of civil (i.e. secular) society.

On the contrary, the concept of a strong wall between church and state is a cornerstone of our Republic.

Rick Esenberg said...

Yeah, but having "religion imposed upn them" in the Jeffersonian sense was an 18th century issue and not a 21st century issue. Is it an imposition to make people finacially support activities that their faith tells them are immoral? Could we exist as a society if we gave a broad religious exemption for such support? What does this mean for religious discourse upon public issues or in forums that are associated with the government that Jefferson could not have imagined - and would probably have opposed?

I agree with the Jefferson's statement. Everyone does. The questions that we face today are different - largely because our view of government is different but also because Jefferson failed to see the diversity of American religious thought. He said that, within a relatively short period of time, everyone would become Unitarian. He did not mean by that the same thing as Unitarian Universalism means today but, as in the event, nothing like that happened.

Billiam said...

My issue with this whole thing, is the 1st says Congress shall "make no Law". Congress has never tried to make a Law making any religion the 'religion" of the U.S. From everything I've read, they wanted to avoid a Church of England scenario. They were not looking to remove faith from public discourse. That seems to be a perversion of modern times. That's seems to me to be what his "wall of separation" comment conveyed to the Danbury Baptists.

George Mitchell said...

The USSC and WSC have addressed the issue as it relates to school choice. Both courts said that tax money can be used to finance a religious K-12 education if parents make that choice. At least since the GI Bill, has long been the practice in post-K-12 education; not sure if it ever has been challenged in court.

The vote on the Wisc court was 4-2. It was 5-4 at the USSC. A liberal candidate for the WSC said a few years ago that it was time to revisit the Wisconsin decision.

Ironically, the threat to religious school choice in Wisconsin and many other states derives from so-called Blaine amendments, which were aimed at Irish Catholics. The U.S. Constitution does not include such language.

John Foust said...

Why would religion get special treatment compared to any other form of personal or political belief? If I claim to have a personal religion that's opposed to war, why go you want your small, light-weight government to be in the business of telling me that my religion isn't as special as yours, and therefore wouldn't get the same tax exemptions?

I don't think it quite rises to the level of a Standard Contradictory Disclaimer™, but what I think you mean by "there must be certain separations between religion and state" is that you want fewer separations between your religion and the state. Do you want to impose your religion on others, for it to become the law?

Not surprisingly, you don't want many separations between the WisGOP and the judiciary, or between WisGOP campaigns and public employees.

I think I'm seeing a trend: "Power to the people, especially me and the old white guys who buy me lunch." Those Protestants opposed to Kennedy were worried that the Pope would tell him what to do. I don't think you're concerned with that. It's easy to find countless examples of conservatives who run away from the Pope's personal views when it is politically convenient. If the Pope's opposed to war, it's his personal view and not that of the church. The political edicts were long ago edited out of the Bible, quite purposefully so its phrases could be selectively used to control the flock.

David Blaska said...

Thank you Rick for doing what you do. I have always believed that JFK promised to be a bad Catholic in order to be a good president. Perhaps, 50 years ago, that was the trade-off. Agree with retiring the wall of separation metaphor because it seems to be full of gates that swing only one way: the liberal party believes it can impose its values on religious minorities. Objecting to having your faith hijacked by the coercive powers of the state is then whistled and flagged as imposing your religious values on others. Ms. Fluke pays $46,000/year tuition to attend a private Catholic university but demands that the public treasury subsidize her private and individual choices.

John Foust said...

Blaska, which religious minority do you belong to, and how have you been persecuted by the State?

Dad29 said...

Once you recognize that religion is not simply about prayers on Sunday or making a series of claims about extratemporal matters unrelated to how to live life on earth

Since the Left is the most ir- (or anti-) religious camp on Earth, how would THEY know the above?

John Foust said...

Who knows more about the nature of religion, Dad29? The atheist who has examined many, or the pew-sitter who follows along?