"Separation Of Church And State": Of Course. But When Does It Become an Excuse to Avoid Hard Conversations?

Season 6, Episode 603,   Oct 05, 2023, 08:46 AM

Today's show refers to this writing: 
Religion News Service ran a story last week on the National Association of Christian Lawmakers, and their efforts to pass laws that (they claim) are based on Christianity.
Specifically (from their website), they are about “abolishing abortion,” “restoring marriage between one man and one woman,” and (an often forgotten part of the Sermon on the Mount), “promoting universal school choice.”
The story attributes the following criticism of the NACL to Holly Hollman, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty: that making laws “shaped by a legislator’s view of Christian values can be harmful for both the government and people of faith because it erodes the separation of church and state.”
There’s a lot to unpack here, with implications for everyone—Christian or not, religious or not—who cares about the future of American democracy.
The key phrase in Hollman’s criticism is “the separation of church and state.” What does this phrase mean today? In what ways has it become a reflexive and feckless fallback position for well-intentioned religious people who are politically liberal? And in what circumstances is it indispensable?
So permit me, then, as a thought experiment, to defend the National Association of Christian Lawmakers—not for their specific causes, nor for their method. No. Let me defend the NACL for what they are trying to do, understood in the most generous way possible: they are trying to bring a moral vision into our shared common life, and reconnect that vision to the practice of making laws.
That’s a good thing. A healthy society needs to ask questions about, and have respectful debates about, the good towards which policies and practices are aimed. And a healthy politics is connected to a vision of the common good, or else you get what you have now—a politics of getting and keeping power for personal gain, bought by powerful moneyed interests.
Here’s where the imprecision of the phrase “separation of church and state” becomes problematic. 
If Hollman is playing the “separation of church and state” card in order to trump any religious voice’s articulation of values in public conversations, including conversations about public policy and the making of laws, then she (along with many secularists who believe religion should be just a private activity) are making 2 mistakes: the first is constitutional; the second is strategic.
Let me take the constitutional mistake first. The separation of church and state is a Jeffersonian phrase that refers to the First Amendment. The First Amendment prohibits the  establishment of a state religion, and prohibits the government from restricting individuals’ free exercise of religion.
Neither of these prohibitions can be construed to mean that religious voices are disqualified from articulating values or visions of human flourishing that rise from religious commitments, or advocating for those values as matters of policy. There’s nothing about articulation or advocacy per se, that establishes a state religion or prohibits an individual’s free exercise of religion. A particular bill that NACL supports that gets signed into law may violate the First Amendment, but that’s a separate question.
The second, strategic mistake Hollman makes in playing the “separation of church and state” card is not unique to her. In fact, it is common to most religious people who are politically left of center. It’s a failure to engage with substantive moral and theological critiques of liberal democracy, including laws that rise from liberal democracy’s commitment to equality and individual rights. 
Failing to engage these moral and theological critiques is a strategic mistake because it (to use the language of battle) cedes the moral field to the critics. In short, where there needs to be an articulation of moral good in the public square by religious people who are politically left of center, those people retreat behind the wall of “separation  of church and state.” The needed moral and theological articulation is never made. Silence ensues, and the loud voices win.
Let me be more concrete. NACL wants to undo Obergefell. Instead of criticizing NACL’s advocacy for reversing Obergefell as violating the separation of church and state, what religious people (and non-religious people, for that matter) ought to do, is articulate the moral and theological good that the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause (on which Obergefell was decided) guards.
Or again, abortion. Instead of criticizing NACL as violating the separation of church and state by seeking to abolish abortion, what religious people ought to do, is articulate how “choice” is a moral and theological good in this humanly complex issue.
The “separation of church and state” was never meant to disconnect moral philosophy and moral theology from public questions.
There are reasonable people, of good will, who have substantive critiques of liberal (understood as a political philosophy, not a political party) democracy, and (some of) its laws. The National Association of Christian Lawmakers may or may not be reasonable, or of good will. Either way, to refrain from engaging the moral and humanistic theological dimensions of our shared common life, in the name of the “separation of church and state,” leaves a void that such voices then fill.
 And leaves the positive goods of liberal democracy unspoken.
 Chris Owen
Chris is the Founder and Co-Associate Director of the S-1 Project, dedicated to the promotion of moral and humanistic theological reflection on our shared common life