FB Flickr 4 BWClearing up misconceptions at the church-state intersection

2013 Shurden Lectures

By Jeff Huett, Baptist Joint Committee

DELAND, Fla. — In a September 1992 comic strip, the precocious 6-year-old half of Calvin and Hobbes called the separation of church and state a “touchy subject.” Over the course of three presentations at Stetson University April 9-10, Baptist Joint Committee Executive Director Brent Walker drew on this description, presenting some of the misunderstandings that make religious liberty and church-state separation controversial and suggesting ways to accommodate religious differences, even in the political realm.

Walker was the speaker for the BJC’s eighth annual Walter B. and Kay W. Shurden Lectures on Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State. In 2004, the Shurdens of Macon, Ga., made a gift to the BJC to establish the annual lectureship, held annually on college campuses.

Walker explained that issues at the intersection of church and state “go to matters of the heart, to our faith in God and the dizzying diversity of religious expression we find in this country.”

In his first lecture, Walker laid the foundation for the proper relationship between church and state with respect to theology and history. “Religious liberty is a gift from God, not the result of any act of toleration on the part of government,” he said. God is seen as a “liberating deity” in Scripture “who loves his people and cares about that relationship enough to create them free to say ‘no,’” Walker said.

Walker then discussed Baptists’ role in championing religious liberty and church-state separation. From their reliance on Scripture to suffering the hard lessons of persecution, Baptists’ understanding of religious freedom “was not academic, it was existential,” Walker said. He listed Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, Obadiah Holmes, John Leland and Isaac Backus as “among the pantheon of early Baptist freedom fighters.”

But this freedom gifted by God is protected by political and constitutional institutions, he said.

The Framers of the U.S. Constitution had a vision for our national government that differed greatly from the example provided by the Puritans, who came to New England in search of religious freedom. “What they gained for themselves, they denied to others,” Walker said.

The Framers drafted and approved a document that only spoke of religion once (and that was to ban religious tests for public office), and Walker pointed out that it never mentions Christianity. “[W]ith the adoption of the First Amendment’s religion clauses in the Bill of Rights (‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’), our Founders made it clear that one’s status in the civil community would not depend on a willingness to sign on the dotted line of any religious confession,” Walker said.

Walker stressed that the nation’s Founders, supported by Baptists and armed with Enlightenment values, fought for robust protection for religious liberty in the U.S. Constitution.

“Some today in the religious community, even the progressive Baptist community, see our current drive to perpetuate religious freedom and church-state separation to be rooted only in the Enlightenment, not theology or biblical principles,” Walker said.

But Baptists “got it” long before the Enlightenment thinkers did, he said, and that continues today.

The First Amendment’s religion clauses prevent the establishment of religion and forbid interference with the exercise of religion. Both are equally important and must be taken seriously as well as rigorously enforced if we are to adequately protect our religious liberty, Walker said.

In his second lecture, Walker suggested that religious freedom is threatened by a belief that religious disputes should be settled by majority vote.

“Although majoritarian principles are fundamental in a democracy — that’s how we settle most political and policy issues — the Bill of Rights generally and the First Amendment’s religion clauses in particular are ‘counter-majoritarian,’” Walker said. “They ensure the rights of minorities and protect against political majorities.”

He said religious liberty is best ensured when government treats religion differently, with special concessions and imposing on religion unique constraints.

Walker explained that religion and religious institutions often are given special accommodations from the government to lift burdens on the free exercise of religion. For example, a Baptist church is allowed to hire a Baptist music director instead of a Buddhist, while for-profit businesses cannot discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring, Walker said. And houses of worship are exempt from having to install ramps and elevators under the Americans with Disabilities Act, while a hotel chain must comply.

On the other hand, sometimes religion must endure unique constraints to prevent the establishment of religion or to ensure compliance with Establishment Clause values, Walker said. Public school teachers can say the Pledge of Allegiance, recite the Gettysburg Address, and express many other things in a classroom, but they may not lead in prayer or religious exercises, Walker said. Also, government may fund many things, including the public schools, but it should not directly fund religion or religious schools. “These limitations on religion operate to ensure government neutrality and promote religious liberty for all, especially religious minorities,” he said.

Turning to a controversial issue involving religious exemptions and government accommodations, Walker discussed the Affordable Care Act, the new health care law requiring employers with at least 50 employees to provide insurance coverage, including contraception for female employees.

He said the Baptist Joint Committee initially criticized the administration’s failure to offer broader accommodation for religiously affiliated employers with conscience-based objections to contraception, while exempting churches and other houses of worship.

Walker said the administration announced a modified policy in 2012, seeking to balance the conscience rights of religiously affiliated employers who object to forms of contraception and the public interest of ensuring all women have access to preventative health care. And earlier this year, the administration announced additional rules to clarify and expand the definition of “religious employer,” detailing the process by which self-insured employers would be required to allow a third party administrator to work with health insurers to extend contraception coverage while providing some distance between the objecting employer and the employee desirous of contraception coverage.

Walker concluded his discussion of religious accommodation with a call for a “golden rule” for church-state relations.

“I cannot ask government to promote my religion if I don’t want government to promote somebody else’s religion; and I cannot permit government to hinder somebody else’s religion if I don’t want government to hinder my religion,” Walker said.

The third lecture concentrated on a common misconception about American public life. That is, the separation of church and state requires a complete separation of religion from politics and a public square stripped of religious discourse.

Not so, Walker said. “The question is not whether religious people will be involved in politics, but how should they do it,” he said, and conversations about religion can be a positive force in politics.

“When candidates talk about their faith it can help us know who they are, learn what makes them tick, and examine their moral core,” Walker said. “The free and fluid discussion of candidates’ faith carries the promise of improving the electorate’s ability to make an informed decision in the voting booth.”

He then suggested that with those benefits, danger also lurks when we try to combine religion and politics. Walker mentioned several limitations and cautions about the intersection of religion and politics. For example, if a candidate’s religion is introduced, the question of how his or her religious views will impact public policy positions and leadership competence is vital.

Other words of caution to the general proposition that religion can be helpful to public discourse included that any foray into politics with focused religious motivation should be tempered with a dose of humility. The second caution dealt with the use or abuse of “civil religion” or as Walker described, the “blending of a generic Judeo-Christian piety with American patriotism to the point that one can’t tell them apart.” The third cautioned churches and other nonprofits from supporting or opposing candidates for public office, which could jeopardize their tax-exempt status.

As for the 2012 elections, Walker was pleased with the way religion and politics mingled.

“With rare exception, we did a commendable job in balancing the pertinence of religion to public life with the prohibition on religious tests,” Walker said.

He pointed out that the outcomes in congressional races showcased Americans’ growing appreciation for religious diversity. In 2012, the two Muslim members of the U.S. House of Representatives were re-elected, and a Hindu and “religiously unaffiliated” Member were also elected to the chamber. The past election also saw the first Buddhist elected to the U.S. Senate. This religious diversity and a society that appears to have come to terms with lawmakers who are neither Christian nor Jewish taking oaths on their own holy books gives cause for optimism, Walker concluded.

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