Religion and Politics, not Church and State
Kenneth Cauthen

The question of religion and politics is not the same as the question of church and state. Failure to make this distinction results in confusion.

Church and State

The problem of church and state has to do with institutions and the spheres of action that are appropriate for each. Here the concept of separation is valid. The government does not appoint bishops and pastors for the churches. Churches, meaning here all religious organizations, do not appoint presidents, governors, and judges. No religion can be favored over others or supported by taxes. The state has no role or authority in defining beliefs relating to God and worship. The free exercise of religion is to be guaranteed. The state is neutral between particular religions and permits citizens to believe or not believe in God and to engage or not engage in religious practices or belong to religious organizations according to the dictates of their conscience. There is no religious test for holding office.

We are, in this sense, a secular nation. Nevertheless, complications exist that confound any simple notion of religious neutrality or pure secularism in the national life. Incarnate in our history is a kind of "civil religion" (Robert Bellah) that finds expression in our founding documents, our coins, speeches of presidents, the pledge of allegiance, and so on.  This "religion of the Republic" (Sidney Mead) cannot be defined precisely and has no official status, but it has been operative in the national life from the beginning. This "publick theology" (Benjamin Franklin) affirms the reality of God the Creator as the Author of certain human rights such as liberty and equality, gives a sacred dimension to national holidays such as the 4th of July, Memorial Day, and Thanksgiving, and defines a peculiar American duty and destiny under the Providence of God. These beliefs are independent of any particular historic religion or denomination, although they echo the sacred writings of Jews and Christians. The presence of "civil religion" in our national life does not justify the claim of some that we are actually a "Christian nation." It is not grounds for promoting a "Christian" political agenda. On the other side some secular purists are offended by even this minimal creed and long for a common life utterly devoid of any reference to God. In the news today (June 2, 1998), a California schoolgirl who defines herself as an atheist asserts that it is wrong to require her to recite the pledge of allegiance that contains the words "under God." Enough complexities and ambiguities of this sort abound to frustrate any effort to find some single or simple doctrine defining the relations between church and state or between religion and politics. Our courts are kept busy trying to find workable compromises least offensive to the Constitution and most in harmony with its fundamental intent and directives.

Thorny problems arise in trying to steer between avoiding an establishment of religion and permitting its free exercise. Prayer in public schools and the use of religious symbols in public places are among the most contentious. Is it legitimate for parents to use school vouchers from a state or local government to send their children to a religious school? If a religion requires practices that conflict with secular law, another range of problems arises. Legal wisdom is tested, for example, by the use of peyote in some Native American rites or by the question of whether religious parents who rely on spiritual healing are negligent in taking care of their sick children by refusing standard medical treatment that could save their lives. If some religious group had child sacrifice as an essential part of its ritual, we would not allow that practice in the name of the free expression of religion. Yet all these conflicts occur between two spheres of authority and activity that are in principle separate but in practice sometimes overlap.

Religion and Politics

The problem of religion and politics defines another set of issues. Citizens who belong to religious groups are also members of the secular society, and this dual association gets complicated. Religious beliefs have moral and social implications, and it is appropriate for people of faith to express these through their activities as citizens in the political order. The fact that ethical convictions are rooted in religious faith does not disqualify them from the political realm. However, they do not have secular validity merely because they are thought by their exponents to be religiously authorized. They must be argued for in appropriate social and political terms in harmony with national values.

Given all this, some difficult and subtle issues arise. Suppose someone says, "If some of you Christians believe that abortion is wrong, fine. But don't try to impose your beliefs on the rest of us by passing laws forbidding it." Insight and confusion are tangled up in this statement. A few brief comments may be helpful in clarifying this issue in the context of the problem of religion and politics in general.

1. All attempts to get laws passed are efforts to impose the beliefs of some on everybody. It is legitimate for any group of people to try to get a law passed if they believe it will promote the common good. Whether they are successful in getting the coercive power of the state behind any policy depends on whether they have sufficient political power not on whether the legislation they seek is wise or good as judged by those who oppose it. In that sense, it is appropriate for Christians who are so inclined to get laws passed that make abortion illegal, but not because abortion is judged to be morally wrong by the specific religious doctrines held by them but because it would be a wise and good law in terms of the values resident in the cultural traditions of the nation as a secular society.

2. Every belief that citizens try to express politically is rooted in some philosophy or religion or some set of assumptions about society and its well-being. They do not come from out of nowhere. Religiously-based convictions about society and morality are as legitimate as those that spring from non-religious philosophies. Hence, Christians, Muslims, or Jews may seek to get laws passed that are mandated by their religious convictions. Such laws are appropriate as long as they have a secular purpose and do not constitute an establishment of religion. Whether these laws are wise or worthy of enactment must be judged by whether they promote the common good as judged by national values not by the fact that they are or are not rooted in the religious faith of those who support them. A religious foundation is neither required not forbidden. Neither secular humanism nor religious faith is privileged in this regard.

3. Ideally and in principle, religious believers should not seek to get laws passed on religious grounds but because they express the values of the secular society as defined by its founding documents and traditions as they have come to be embedded in the common life. For example, if people of faith want to argue in the political arena for universal health coverage, e. g., they should do so not because the Bible or the Pope authorizes it or because God wills it but because it promotes "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Likewise, religious groups that seek to outlaw racial or gender discrimination should do so because it would be good for society as a whole not because it is part of the system of religious doctrines to which they adhere.

4. A two-sided critique is required. Against religious people who explicitly support political policies on religious grounds peculiar to a particular denomination (the Bible, the Pope, church doctrine, and the like), we must insist that our government does not rest on principles peculiar to particular religions, denominations, or sects. In this sense, we are a secular state. Hence, the political and ethical implications of faith should be framed in terms of the values embodied in our national history and traditions. Against some secular zealots we must insist that religious people have as much right to express the social and ethical implications of their faith in political terms as they have to express their non-religious or atheist philosophies. The problem is that many religious people and secularists simply identify their outlook with "the American way" and are unable or unwilling to distinguish between an underlying orientation (religious faith or secular philosophy) and its social and political implications. Once again the presence of "civil religion" in our history complicates the notion of an absolutely secular state. Even so, the "religion of the Republic" gives little specific ethical guidance beyond support of broadly-defined principles of justice, liberty, individual rights, equality, and the like. These ideals are so general and abstract that they can usually be invoked by parties on every side of issues when it comes to the specifics of social policy.

5. In practical terms, however, if believers actually convince other voters to support legislation because the Bible, the Pope, or church doctrine mandates it, not much can be done about it except to make an effort to persuade citizens that there is a better way. We cannot determine or control the reasons why people vote or support the policies they do or prevent them from convincing others to do the same. In the voting booth citizens are a law unto themselves. They can vote for whatever or whoever they want for any reason that motivates them. It is pointless to demand purity of principle on this matter. Voters act out of prejudice, self-interest, racial identity, ignorance, and for all sorts of other good and bad reasons, including their religious beliefs, philosophical commitments, and a devotion to justice based on American principles. Let us be realists about the matter. But it is better when acting politically in the public arena for believers to translate religiously-based beliefs into the traditions, language, and values of the secular order. This is called for as a matter of principle. It is advisable pragmatically as well, since the tying of policy or voting explicitly to the tenets of a particular religion, denomination, or sect may repel large number of voters and hinder rather than further the cause.

6. Churches must determine on the basis of their polity and doctrine whether it is legitimate or wise for a church official, congregation, or denominational body to endorse a particular policy or candidate. But the state must determine whether partisan political activities engaged in officially by religious institutions jeopardize their tax exemption or the income tax deduction for gifts to them, since it then becomes a matter of church and state.

Working out the relations between church and state and between religion and politics requires all the wisdom we can summon. But it will help if we remember that they are not the same. In both cases, we should be prepared to deal with complexities, ambiguities, and overlapping realms in which practical wisdom must find workable principles to guide us that are as compatible with fundamental Constitutional imperatives as human reason can devise. Those who look for absolutely clear prescriptions requiring no delicate balancing acts or imprecise lines of demarcation between what is permissible and what is not are doomed to perpetual frustration. Or they may be tempted to resort to desperate efforts to find simplicity and purity of doctrine by suppressing legitimate but complicating elements in the total ensemble of historical principles and practices that govern the nation.

© 1997

About the author...
Kenneth Cauthen is the John Price Crozer Griffith emeritus Professor of Theology at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, New York. He is the author of twenty books, including The Impact of American Religious Liberalism, which was the standard text in the field for a quarter of a century. Born in Georgia, he was educated at Mercer, Yale, Emory, and Vanderbilt, receiving a BA, BD, MA and PhD. He has served as Baptist pastor, college professor at Mercer University, and as a professor of theology for forty years.

Cauthen is dedicated to defending liberal Christianity. To this end, he runs a web site and a regularly updated blog. He welcomes e-mails responding to his perspective.


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