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.