S5, Ep. 07: Barbara Jordan’s 1986 speech on church-state separation resonates today

Don’t miss this powerful presentation from a dedicated public servant, educator, and lifelong Baptist. 

Nov 30, 2023

American trailblazer Barbara Jordan delivered a powerful speech on the role of churches in shaping public policy at a BJC event in 1986. We’re bringing you this special presentation because her words resonate for our political climate today. Congresswoman Jordan notes that the institutional separation of church and state must be maintained, but that doesn’t mean the two can’t interact. She gives a strong case for Christian citizenship and being active in the policy realm. Plus, her wide-ranging Q&A covers nuclear conflicts, the “wall of separation” metaphor, and more. 

Segment 1 (starting at 00:34): Barbara Jordan’s 1986 speech on the church and public policy

Barbara Jordan’s speech is from BJC’s 20th National Religious Liberty Conference, held in October 1986. 

Learn more about Barbara Jordan from the following sources:

Biography from the Barbara Jordan Center

Biography from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Article about Barabara Jordan written by William Broyles and published by Texas Monthly (1976

Barbara Jordan’s obituary in The New York Times, written by Francis X. Clines (1996)

During her speech, Congresswoman Jordan mentions the letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists (1802). You can
read it on the website of the Library of Congress.

Segment 2 (starting at 23:26): Q&A on nuclear conflict, the “wall of separation,”  advocacy, and more

The audience members who asked questions did not have microphones, so we just shared the host’s repetition of questions in this segment. In two instances, Barbara Jordan repeated the question herself (at 32:22 and 33:58).

Segment 3 (starting at 40:29): Wrapping up today’s show

Respecting Religion is made possible by BJC’s generous donors. You can support these conversations with a gift to BJC.


Transcript: Season 5, Episode 7: Barbara Jordan’s 1986 speech on church-state separation resonates today(some parts of this transcript have been edited for clarity)

Segment 1: Barbara Jordan’s 1986 speech on the church and public policy (starting at 00:34)

HOLLY: Welcome to Respecting Religion, a BJC podcast where we look at religion, the law, and what’s at stake for faith freedom today. I’m Holly Hollman, general counsel at BJC.

Today, we’re bringing you a special conversation from the BJC archives. It’s a speech from the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, delivered in 1986 at a BJC event. Representative Jordan’s speech is focused on the church and public policy, noting that the institutional separation of church and state must be maintained, but that doesn’t mean that the two can’t interact. She makes a strong case for Christian citizenship and being active in the policy realm, and her words are still relevant to us today.

Barbara Jordan was the daughter of a Baptist preacher who she references in her speech. She was a lawyer, an educator, a dedicated public servant, and a lifelong Baptist herself. When she was first elected to Congress in 1972 to represent part of Houston, Texas, she became the first Black woman to be elected to Congress from the South in the 20th century. She’s also recognized as the first LGBTQ+ woman to serve in Congress.

Representative Jordan was well known for her booming voice and her powerful presentations, and you’ll hear that today. She served on the Judiciary Committee, and when that committee began its impeachment process against President Richard Nixon, it was Barbara Jordan who gave the opening remarks.

Jordan did not run for reelection in 1978. Instead, she became a professor at The University of Texas in Austin. There she taught in the LBJ School of Public Affairs until her death in 1996.

Her New York Times obituary noted how her students recall her never being without a copy of the Constitution in her purse. She was immortalized on a postage stamp in 2011 as part of the Black Heritage series. We’ll link to some more information about Representative Jordan in our show notes, including biographies of her and an article about her in Texas Monthly, published during her time in Congress.

But now, here’s Barbara Jordan herself, speaking in Washington, D.C., in October of 1986 about the church and public policy. In segment 2, we’ll bring you part of her Q&A.

BARBARA JORDAN: (audio clip) I am delighted to be here for this event. If I did not want to be here, I wouldn’t be here. I did teach my classes all day yesterday at The University of Texas, the LBJ School. I concluded my ethics class at five o’clock yesterday and went directly to the airport to come here.


Now, the students were pleased that I was coming to talk to ‑‑ all they knew is it had something to do with church and the Baptists and religious liberty, but they love to showcase their professor, and their professor loves to be showcased, so it’s a happy, happy marriage.


The church and public policy is what I’m going to talk about. Now, I understand that there has not been much audience interaction with the speaker. I am going to make some brief remarks, and then I am going to stop, and I would like for you, as many of you as possible, to raise questions and let’s talk a little bit, because the worst thing, I feel, for a speaker is to speak at people and never know whether anything takes effect.


I know that preachers have a way of not caring about that, but I – [Audience laughter.] Sorry, Marvin Griffin. But, no, not ‑‑ my father, as you know, was a Baptist preacher. I know about preachers, love preachers — have to. [Audience laughter.]


It is an elemental rule of public policymaking and political science that policymaking is a dynamic process involving hundreds, sometimes thousands of actors and interests. From intimidation, initiation, to implementation, policymaking is a dynamic process which includes a lot of people.


In a democratic republic such as ours, we have entrusted most policymaking to elected representatives of the people. It’s set up that way. If that trust is to be maintained, it is crucial that the people and the interests most affected by the policy have input and access to the policymaker. That’s elementary.

Such input and access to the policymaker should be inclusive, not exclusive. Include everybody you can include, and do not try to exclude people from the process. The credibility and efficacy of the policymaker’s decision depends in large measure on the degree of public support the decision has.


Now, we could all recite instances of policies which failed because they did not have the support of the people. You could start with Franklin Roosevelt’s court-packing scheme, and you could talk about that measure the Congress passed, seat belt ignition interlock. Do you remember that? You’d get in your car, and you couldn’t start it until your seat belt was locked. You know that didn’t stay on the books a hot minute. The people didn’t support it. The people didn’t like it, and so it got removed.


I cannot overstate the essential ingredient: public support. Public support of the policymaking mix is an essential ingredient. The church: the church is an important part of the public. The church is an important part of the public. We reside as a part of the public. The church institutionally, the church individually — we are a part of the public, the public which can, does, and should always seek input to the policymaker.


This organization has done an outstanding job in this regard, but yet there remains those who for a variety of reasons are uncomfortable with church – public policy interaction. History is, in part, responsible for this discomfort.


Jesus said in response to a trick question: Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. Jesus said that almost 2,000 years ago, and here we are, still having trouble figuring out what is Caesar’s and what is God’s. That ambivalence probably has some basis in the refusal of some to endorse church involvement in public policy.


Mark De Wolfe Howe, in a series of lectures, provides some historical background for some of this present discomfiture regarding church-state relations. Howe wrote, “Mr. Justice Reed of the Supreme Court once warned his associates that a rule of law should not be drawn from a figure of speech. The Court did not heed the admonition. As a result of that, much judicial energy has been devoted to the task of trying to explain a figure of speech.” All right. The figure of speech: the wall of separation between church and state.


You have it in your literature, that that was a phrase used by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Baptists at Danbury, Connecticut. When that figure of speech appeared on the scene of constitutional law, it was clothed in Jeffersonian garb for the metaphor. To give you the entire context in which the metaphor appeared, here is what Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Baptists.


He says — Thomas Jefferson: “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”


That metaphor, that figure of speech, we have now escalated into a rule of law. That rule of law is often invoked to prohibit the church’s entry into matters of public policy. Jefferson, however, spoke from an anticlerical Enlightenment perspective. As you know, one of the essential tenets of the Enlightenment was anticlericalism. Jefferson wrote from that perspective.


There is a piece of writing by Roger Williams which Howe also includes in his lectures, but Roger Williams speaks from a different perspective. Here is what Williams said. He was concerned ‑‑ Roger Williams was concerned about the state corrupting the church. He felt that was the greater danger, and it really might be.


This is what he said: “When they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the candlestick, and made his garden a wilderness as at this day.”


Yes. We believe in the separation of church and state, and we would do nothing to devalue that principle of American constitutional thought. However, we also believe in common sense, and we do not believe that common sense should be a prisoner of the principle. Common sense tells us that there is nothing mutually exclusive about good citizenship and good church membership.


Our rights as citizens are not circumscribed by our active involvement in church affairs. In fact, church involvement and its teachings may add to and enhance the quality of our participation in the affairs of state and in governmental affairs. The First Amendment to the Constitution was thought by many of the Founders to be totally unnecessary to add it to the Constitution. There were some who felt that we didn’t need the Bill of Rights at all. I’m talking about the Founders.


The reason they felt this is that they felt the rights and liberties included in the Bill of Rights, particularly the First Amendment, were already a part of natural law and understood by all, and that therefore, there was no necessity to spell out something that everybody already knew, so why did we get the First Amendment and the other ten?


There were those persons, those anti-federalists like Thomas Paine and others, who were using the absence of a Bill of Rights as an argument to try to defeat the ratification of the Constitution. Therefore, James Madison and others, campaigning for ratification, said, When we get to Congress ‑‑ James Madison defeated James Monroe ‑‑ said, When we get to Congress, we will see to it that these liberties are added to the Constitution, so vote for it now.


Prudence prevailed, and politics prevailed, and we got the First Amendment and the other ten immediately following ratification. Ratification, ’87; the amendments approved, ’91. The meaning of the amendment guaranteeing religious liberty has a history of lack of clarity. That’s a part of its history.


In spite of that somewhat murky beginning, there are features which are starkly clear. Did the First Amendment render the government hostile to religion or neutral towards religion? There is nothing in history, in law, or in fact which supports the argument of hostility. There remains a de facto recognition in American life of the place of religion. It has ever been thus. It will ever be thus.


Problems arise when questions of religious preference are introduced by individuals who are trying to appropriate God for some private, some personal, or some political end. The field of action of church and state is the same. The field of action of church and state is the same. The field, mankind, humanity ‑‑ that’s the field.


There are issues on which church and state meet, and efforts of accommodation result in amicable resolution on many of these issues. This is not an easy task to accommodate and reach resolution. Openness, tolerance, and an absence of rigidity are necessary traits for resolution.


A recent statement by Rembert Weakland, archbishop of Milwaukee, seemed appropriate here. He said, “Amateurs turned theologians become headhunters, and leaders were picked, not by their ability to work toward a synthesis of the new knowledge and the tradition, but by the rigidity of their orthodoxy.”


In fact, Weakland continued, it is not by accident that “the troubled territory today is sexuality and its relationship to the whole of human behavior, that is, moral issues.” The church must have an interest in the policy agenda of the nation. Church and state meet on a broad range of public policy issues. Those issues include sexuality, marriage and divorce, wife and child abuse, equality of people, indigent and elderly health care, survival of the planet earth, liberty, justice, and many, many more.


This meeting of church and state need not be a collision, need not be a collision. What is required? Are men and women of good will willing to bargain in good faith for the common good? Reason must be our guide. The debate on policy questions must not be left to the rigid, inflexible idealogue. We are Baptists. The Holy Spirit is active in us. When the Holy Spirit is active in you, there is renewal. There is openness. There is change. There is dynamism.


When the Holy Spirit is active in you, you can’t be a demagogue. The Holy Spirit is our defense toward demagoguery. It is that constant renewal, that constant restrengthening, helping us to meet the great challenges of being a Christian.


Edgar Snow once wrote, “I want nothing to do with a religion concerned with keeping the masses satisfied to live in hunger, filth and ignorance.” As a Baptist and as a Christian, I concur with Edgar Snow, but I add: I want nothing as a citizen to do with a state which tolerates people living in hunger, in filth, and in ignorance. There is much work left for us to do, and we will do it best, we will do it well, if we cooperate instead of fight. Thank you. [Applause.]



Segment 2: Q&A on nuclear conflict, the “wall of separation,” advocacy, and more (starting at 23:26)

HOLLY: You just heard a speech from Representative Barbara Jordan given in 1986 at BJC’s National Religious Liberty Conference. We thought it’d also be interesting to play a few segments of the Q&A after her speech, which includes a discussion of issues ranging from nuclear conflict to the separation of church and state as applied to issues of the day. Here she is, as well as one of BJC’s hosts, repeating the audience questions.

HOST: (audio clip) The question is: What happens when either church or state is hesitant to enter into the kind of dialogue that has just been described?


REPRESENTATIVE JORDAN: (audio clip) I think that you seek out for persons who can be supportive with you on the issue and force yourself to get involved in it, force yourself to move ahead. It’s hesitation which is responsible for so much irresolution, and I cannot believe that there could not be a sufficient number of gifted and knowledgeable people believing on one side or the other could help crack the impasse created by hesitation.


And I could just urge ‑‑ in numbers there is a sense of safety, a sense of support ‑‑ to get together as many people supportive of one side or the other and with those numbers, try to forge ahead and enforce dialogue. There’s no way to ‑‑ we can’t compel people to talk. We can have an urgency in our effort, and that’s ‑‑ that’s the best we can do, as I see it.


HOST: (audio clip) With regard to the interaction between the citizenry and the elected representatives of the citizens specifically on the question of the threat of nuclear war, how should the church interact with legislators and public policymakers?


REPRESENTATIVE JORDAN: (audio clip) The decision which will either help the planet survive or be destroyed, the decision is going to be made by politicians. Whether we like it or not, the decision of the number of nuclear weapons and warheads and the rest of it will be made by politicians. So the question becomes: How can the church influence the politician?


The church ‑‑ we can say, the church is not monolithic on the matter of nuclear war. There are some members of churches or church bodies who are supportive of nuclear conflict. I know you can’t ‑‑ many of you probably can’t believe that, but it is true. Therefore, it is necessary for those who are in opposition to nuclear conflict and nuclear escalation and arms build-ups, it is important for those church groups to communicate to their elected representatives their views.


Now, the elected representative in the statehouse is sort of remote but from the Congress is not remote. That elected representative, you’re going to say, but it’s the president who really has the control of this matter, not those elected people that we see on the floor of the House and the Senate. That is true. However, you know that because of our system, the way it is — checks and balances — the president can be made to pay attention.


The Congress did this last week on South Africa, forced the president to carry out a law which the Congress passed, and he didn’t like because he vetoed it. So it is – [Applause.] Yes. If you’d like to applaud that, I’m delighted in the Congress overriding the veto. [Applause.]


So the Congress can bring pressure to bear on the president, and the church then has to ‑‑ those members, those ones who are for it, get through to your representatives and let them know the depth of your concern about the whole issue of nuclear conflict.


Now, I don’t ‑‑ I can’t talk about the bishops’ letter. I don’t understand what that was all about, because I don’t understand what that means. But I suppose that was a church effort ‑‑ you remember the bishops’ letter on nuclear conflict, and I don’t want to say anything because it might seem like I’m being catty about another faith, but I don’t want to do that.


So let us do what we know how to do, and that is communicate the way we know to communicate, with members of — representatives of — the House and Senate, and try, let that be our input and urge them to get it up the ladder, the hierarchical political ladder, to the president of the United States.


HOST: (audio clip) Is the wall of separation between church and state a solid wall, a crumbling wall, or a pile of rocks?


REPRESENTATIVE JORDAN: (audio clip) I do not believe the wall of separation has ever been solid. That is what I was trying to bring out in relating the incidents and letters which led to the phrase “wall of separation.” It has never, in my judgment, to repeat, been solid. There have been holes. It has been penetrated. It is penetrable. It should be penetrable.


The worst thing for us to assume as a posture would be the wall as solid, impregnable, imprisoning one side as against the other side. Is it crumbling? No, sir; no, ma’am. It’s there. We know what is meant by “the wall of separation.”


We know that any time the government wants to act so boldly as to establish a state religion, we know that the trumpets would sound. That would be intolerable. We know that if the state ever wanted to enact into law or practice even an act of preference of one religion to another, we know that would be a clarion call.


That kind of co-optive separation is not going to occur, because it’s the kind that the people of America would not tolerate. We will tolerate the de facto recognition of religion. We will have our chaplains in the Congress and in the statehouses. We will celebrate Christmas, and we will sing “Silent Night” and nobody’s going to stop that. But it is those blatant acts of interference one with the other which will not occur, and that is the separation which will remain and which every Baptist I know believes in.


Should the church seek to shape public policy, rather than just have input into public policy? If you’re going to have access, the church to the policymaker, you are going to be giving your views to the policymaker on whatever issue it is. If it affects your interests, whatever that is, you want to so influence the policymaker that some of your ideas are translated into law and policy.


To that extent, you are helping to shape public policy but not directly, and that indirect form of shaping public policy, that is, you communicate with the legislator and the legislature then acts and may include some of your ideas, to that extent, I feel shaping is acceptable. You are not doing it directly. You’re acting as a good citizen.


What would be the restraints upon the church, if any, in the public arena? The church is forbidden in its action, in my ‑‑ understand, this is all personal opinion. In my opinion, the church is forbidden from representing itself as speaking directly with a divine voice about a given public policy issue.


The church can talk to its parishioners about what it feels is the proper role on a given issue, but when the church goes out to act, the church is in error if it purports to be the voice of God in public policy. That is where you have to draw the line. You are an individual. If your views are inspired because of your belief in God, so be it.


But the church cannot ‑‑ and what I said about appropriating God, you can’t ‑‑ if the church is going to get into the political act, the church cannot then pretend that it has some special or unique aura which other politicians and policymakers does not have and cannot have. That is just not the case.


I would hope that in the public arena, the church is a better public servant for its acquaintanceship and recognition of God, but it has to draw the line. And, I mean, I’m a supporter, a founder, a contributor and everything else to People for the American Way, because we are against ‑‑ People for the American Way, I know that we are attacked by various people. But we are out there.


We have got this project, you know, Buchanan and I and Father Drinan, the former member of Congress who had to get out of Congress because the Pope didn’t want him to be in Congress ‑‑ we have this program to help keep the lines clear on church-state relations in the political arena, and we have been following some of these people who pretend that God has given them the special word and to nobody else.


That is ‑‑ that’s the kind of thing ‑‑ those prescriptions ‑‑ commonsense restrictions, if I can just ‑‑ don’t pretend that you’re any more than you are. [Applause.]


HOST: (audio clip) The question has to do with whether Ms. Jordan can offer some advice on overcoming the barrier when a politician, confronted with an individual citizen’s position on an issue, attempts to make the citizen feel as though he or she is trying to impose one’s values upon that public policy issue. Is that a fair restatement of it? All right.


REPRESENTATIVE JORDAN: (audio clip) All right. There are some values which are personal. There are some values which are almost universal. There are some values which are attached to the government of the United States of America alone probably.


When you go to that policymaker and he says, You’re trying to enforce your values on mine, I would want to know exactly which values did he have in mind. There are some values we share. Now, and if this policymaker is saying to me, I’m trying to enforce my values on his, I want to know, what is the conflict.


Tell me the issue, because it is highly unlikely, highly unlikely, that I am going to have a set of values that are so repugnant and antithetical to a policymaker in the United States of America that he couldn’t stand them. So I would want to know, just what are you talking about, sir or ma’am. And that is the way I ‑‑


Enforcing my values on you? What values do I have that you can’t tolerate? I believe in love and grace and faith and justice and liberty. Get it straightened out. Put it out there. And if you’re holding some value that this policymaker just can’t deal with, then maybe you ought to look at that and see whether there is something about it which needs to be altered.


So I would ‑‑ the best thing you can do with these policymakers is not let them get away with generalities. If you say, trying to enforce your values on me, now, Mr. Policymaker, just exactly what is it. Tell me specifically, and let me see if we can’t reach some accommodation. Let’s see if we can’t be harmonious.


There are some values that the radical and religious right would have which I could not deal with, and I would say I was constantly confronted with people I couldn’t deal with in the Congress because they had a set of values which I couldn’t take in, and I would spell it out to them. And I think if we all just put it all on the table, that that is the best way to communicate about issues and the values underlying them.


HOST: (audio clip) I am told that we must stop, and I apologize for having nodded affirmatively at a couple more of you, but we are out of time.


Again, Ms. Jordan, thank you for making the extraordinary effort that you have made to be with us today. We are so very grateful to you.


REPRESENTATIVE JORDAN: (audio clip) Thank you. [Applause.]


Segment 3: Wrapping up today’s show (starting at 40:29)

HOLLY: That was Barbara Jordan, speaking to BJC’s National Religious Liberty Conference in 1986. To learn more about her and her trailblazing life and many contributions to our country, visit our show notes. We are grateful for her voice and prophetic witness through the years of her service to our country.

This brings us to the close of this episode of Respecting Religion. Thanks for joining us. Visit our website at RespectingReligion.org for show notes and a transcript of this program.

Respecting Religion is produced and edited by Cherilyn Guy with editorial assistance from Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons and Jennifer Hawks.

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