Ethics and Respect Thrive with an Absolute Separation of Church and State

Debate surrounding the separation of church and state has once again been renewed following Rick Santorum’s comments that a 1960 John Kennedy speech regarding the separation of church and state made him “want to throw up.”  In response to a question regarding the potential nausea-inducing exclusion of religion from government, Santorum told George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week” last Sunday: “I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state are absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country … to say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes me want to throw up.”  Following-up on this sentiment, Santorum said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” later that morning that separation of church and state was “not the founder’s vision.”

His comments are not only wholly inaccurate (several of the founders, including Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, explicitly and emphatically favored separation of the church and state), but they present a whole host of questions that highlight the hypocrisy of many religious conservatives in politics.

For instance, if, as Santorum suggests, there should not be a separation of church and state, then whose religion and whose church is allowed to maintain “influence” and “involvement in the operation of the state?”  Presumably, Santorum is suggesting that his religion (i.e. mainstream Christianity) should be the one involved in government and politics, but who decides which religion is allowed to influence government?  Does the influence of government depend on who is in office at any given time?  Should the fate of the country depend on whether the President is a Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jew, or Mormon?   And what happens to less popular religions, such as Paganism and Wicca?  Should our public policy hinge on the vacillating religious beliefs of an ever-changing collection of government officials?

The fact that Santorum’s statements were made in reference to his response to a 1960 speech given by President John Kennedy – a speech reaffirming the separation of church and state to assuage the public’s fears regarding Kennedy’s Catholic faith – only highlights the problems with allowing religion and the church to influence government.  A mere 50 years ago, Kennedy’s Catholic faith was under attack, yet today Santorum’s Catholic faith is a non-issue for Republicans, whereas the Mormon faith of Santorum’s opponent, Mitt Romney, seems to play a role in the Republican primary.  The fact that the political-religious dynamic in this country has shifted so dramatically in the past 50 years such that a religion that once prompted skepticism is now a conventional religion within politics underscores the potential for religious trends and transformations within our country.   No one religion is “safe.”

Let us remember that the separation of church and state does not prevent the inclusion of basic morality in government and politics, nor does it require that government officials be irreligious.  In fact, I suspect that many of the so-called religious principles that some would like to see involved in government are simply humanist principles that are not confined to religious theologies.  Simply stated, humanism is a philosophy that affirms the ability and responsibility of all people to “lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity,” and I’m sure that we can all agree that ethics should play a role in government and politics.

The separation of church and state does not mean that we must surrender the desire to lead ethical lives or the promotion of ethical behavior.  Rather, the separation of church and state, first and foremost, protects our basic right to hold our own religious beliefs; it protects our right to worship what and how we choose, not according to the ways a current or future government deems appropriate.  We all want the right to hold our own religious beliefs (or non-beliefs) and practice those beliefs in the ways that we see appropriate, which means that it is absolutely essential that we respect the same rights of everyone in this country to do so by not imposing our own beliefs on others – even if our religious theology happens to be that of the majority at any given time.  Because we all hold different spiritual beliefs, with theological variances existing within religious denominations themselves, the only way for us to truly respect the basic right of religious freedom is to keep religion out of government and politics.

As a person of faith, I can support nothing short of an absolute separation of church and state.  As a religious liberal, I am fearful of a time in which I may be required to forfeit my religious beliefs simply because they are not the religious beliefs of the majority.  In the words of Ronald Reagan during a 1984 speech: “We in the United States, above all, must remember that…we were founded as a nation of openness to people of all beliefs. And so we must remain. Our very unity has been strengthened by our pluralism. We establish no religion in this country, we command no worship, we mandate no belief, nor will we ever.  Church and state are, and must remain, separate. All are free to believe or not believe, all are free to practice a faith or not, and those who believe are free, and should be free, to speak of and act on their belief.”  Only by doing so can we create a society and government that is founded in ethics and respect.

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