c. 2006 Religion News Service
(UNDATED) Senate candidate Katherine Harris, R-Fla., recently annoyed the hornets in the church/state nest by announcing in an interview with the Florida Baptist Witness newspaper that the separation of church and state was a lie. She claimed that believing in the separation of church and state made people think “that they needed to avoid politics.” And they shouldn’t think that, she said, because “God is the one who chooses our rulers.”
Of course those two things don’t go together. If God chooses our rulers independently, then why have a democracy at all? And if God relies on our electoral system, well … we’ve got more than just terrorism and global warming to worry about.
But despite the logical inconsistencies in her theology, Harris does have a point, at least from a Christian perspective.
For faith to be anything like what Jesus proclaimed, we can’t fence off a part of our lives and forbid faith to enter it. Those who profess to love God with all of their heart, soul, mind and strength and their neighbors as themselves have a moral obligation to participate in the political process.
The trouble is, Harris is objecting to a straw man. Separation of church and state is not about individuals of faith leaving the public sphere to others. It is a policy to ensure religious freedom while also protecting against religious tyranny.
Roger Williams, founder of the state of Rhode Island and (ironically) the first Baptist church in America, felt very strongly about that principle as he fled the Massachusetts Bay Colony when they tried to make a Puritan out of him. Michael Schiavo felt very strongly about that when Congress tried to force him to make choices about care for his brain-damaged wife, Terri, according to a particular set of religious beliefs. I have felt very strongly about that when people have suggested that I can’t be both a Christian and a liberal Democrat.
The separation of church and state is not some secular plot to eradicate religion. It is a protection from state persecution for religious groups and a protection from theocratic extremism for the state.
It is also a protection for individual souls. I feel sorry for the person with no religious faith at all; I don’t know how they get through life. But forcing religious doctrine and practice on unbelievers violates what I believe to be the fundamental nature of God.
More than that, for those people in the majority religion, the conflation of church and state leads unsuspecting people of faith down the road to idolatry. When disagreement with public policy becomes not just dissent but heresy, those who can’t distinguish between the will of God and the will of the president have begun to worship at another altar.
I agree with many conservatives that it is absurd to interpret the separation of church and state to mean that no religious expression can happen on federal or state property. It is not meant to protect us from having to encounter beliefs different than our own. But it is meant to ensure that “political dissident” and “heretic” don’t become synonyms, a line that began to disappear back in, oh, about March 2003.
I have to wonder if anybody at the Florida Baptist Witness thought about Roger Williams’ Baptist church when Harris trounced the principle that allowed him to establish it as “a lie.” I also have to wonder how anybody can run for the Senate and not understand the difference between the corporate protections offered by the separation of church and state and the individual necessity to have personal faith inform our political lives.
But it does seem to be a problem. And not just with Katherine Harris.
(The Rev. Anne Robertson is the author of “God’s Top 10: Blowing the Lid Off the Commandments” (Morehouse Publishing, October 2006) and pastor of the United Methodist Church of Westford, in Westford, Mass. Visit her Web site at http://www.annerobertson.com.)
KRE/JL END ROBERTSONEditors: To obtain a photo of Anne Robertson, go to the RNS Web site at https://religionnews.com. On the lower right, click on “photos,” then search by subject or slug.