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Saturday, August 20, 2005

Should a Wall have a Window?

It's easy to understand why Americans have a schizophrenic split on the correct role of faith in the public sphere. The same men who penned the First Amendment, which states "Congress shall pass no law respecting the establishment of religion" spoke and wrote almost incessantly about religion. Although some, such a Jefferson and Washington, eventually moved towards a personal indifference towards established churches, the majority still held that (at least for the great unwashed masses) religion was both necessary and desirable.

I think those who are pushing for more "faith-based government" would do well to realize that, in a democracy, any religious denomination that can become a majority has been and is likely to again become a minority. When you contemplate the history of oppressive majorities once they lose power, it is a bit frightening to be lumped into such a group.

Which is why I so strongly oppose the voice of the Religious Right (which is neither).

I believe, first and foremost, that the "wall of separation" between church and state should exist - and it should be complete. But it is the "church" that is being walled out from the state, not "faith". (It should also be noted that the state is supposed to be walled out of the church, as well.)

The fact is that it would be stupid to try and get people to leave behind their faith when they step into the public sphere - either as a candidate or as a voter. It is telling that in the 1960s, John F. Kennedy had to reassure voters that he believed in this separation of church and state and would, in effect be a "bad Catholic" by not allowing the Pope to dictate his stance on important issues. Yet today, President George W. Bush openly mixes his religion and politics and defends this practice as being not only "Biblical" but being a defense of "American values". In fact, this is just the culmination (so far) of a long trend of Evangelical Conservative Churches gaining a political voice.

Unlike many people on the left, I don't think it is entirely wrong. I do think it is wrong for a President to try and get his hands on church membership rolls in order to gain a fund-raising edge, as it is reported that the Bush campaign did in 2004. The push by the Rev. Jerry Falwell to mobilize Conservative Christians is unsettling to me in the possibility of his organization turning over membership rolls from member churches to the Republican Party, but not in his effort to mobilize voters that share his values.

The fact is that American churches have always viewed our democratic society as a means of implementing greater fairness and to bring official policy more in line with their moral values. The role of the Quaker Churches in abolition has been well-documented, as well as their efforts to improve conditions in America prisons and mental institutions. What we are likely to forget is the activism of American churches in the 20th century for progressive causes.

Take a look at the "Social Creed of the Churches of the Federal Council"

"To us it seems that the Churches must stand --

"For equal rights and for complete justice for all men in all stations of life.

"For the right of all men to the opportunity for self-maintenance, a right ever to be wisely and strongly safeguarded against encroachments of every kind.

"For the right of workers to some protection against the hardships often resulting from the swift crisis of industrial change.

"For the principle of conciliation and arbitration in industrial dissentions.

"For the protection of the worker from dangerous machinery, occupational disease, injuries, and mortality.

"For the abolition of child labor.

"For the regulation of the conditions of toil for women as shall safeguard the physical and moral health of the community.

"For the suppression of the ‘sweating system.’

"For the gradual and reasonable reduction of the hours of labor to the lowest practicable point, and for that degree of leisure for all which is a condition of the highest human life.

"For a release from employment one day in seven.

"For a living wage as a minimum in every industry and for the highest wage that each industry can afford.

"For the most equitable division of the products of industry that can ultimately be devised.

"For suitable provision for the old age of the workers and for those incapacitated by injury.

"For the abatement of poverty."


A living wage? A day off for religious observance? Equal rights for women? Abolition of child labor? Arbitration? Equitable division of industry? Anti-poverty?

What liberal in America today would stand against any of these stances? Looking over them, do they not, in fact, read like a Democratic Party platform from any Presidential election dating back at least to Franklin Roosevelt?

Oh yeah, the Social Creed was issued in 1908.

In other words, the problem with the power exerted by the Religious Right today is that it is not balanced by a voice from the Religious Left. Anyone who claims that personal faith has no part of politics is simply ignoring history and not really thinking about the issue at all.

If you take the secular view of religion - that it is simply a group of superstitions that work as a type of pseudo-ethics - then it is impossible to ask a person to forget about religious views when contemplating political action. Whatever source of ethics a person uses, those beliefs are with them constantly. Even in such cases where they vote for tolerance, it is because they value tolerance over their person ethical stand.

For example, I believe that adultery is morally wrong. However, I would never vote to make it illegal. Why? Because I believe that it is a moral wrong and must, therefore, carry a moral price. It should not carry a legal price, though. To put it differently, morality only has value when it is chosen. If you force people to never commit adultery, then what profit is there to living a moral life that eschews adultery? If there is no choice, there is no guilt - but where there is no guilt, there is no salvation.

In other words, codifying Christian morality is the worst possible action for a Christian to take. This is true because Christiantiy is based wholly upon the idea of choosing to give up one's life to follow Christ's example and teachings. Faith without works is truly dead, but works without choice is a soul-less life.

When I have spoken about this belief, I often get some well-intentioned, but rather simplistic arguments. Such as, would I then support the removal of murder laws? After all, that's a moral decision, too.

True, but it is also a legal one. To end someone's life without justification is to deprive them of their primary legal right to exist. Therefore, it must have a legal price. The fact that it carries a moral price is inconsequential to that discussion.

So how is a Christian to approach this paradox where they are called to exercise personal faith in their decisions, but not to enforce their religion upon others?

I admit, it is truly a paradox, because votes have very real consequences.

The model I suggest is that the wall of separation between church and state should remain firm and complete (or be made complete). However, that wall should have a window of faith cut into it. The church hierarcy should not have influence upon the actions of the government and the actions of the government should not have influence over the teachings of the church. However, people of all faiths should be able to look through a window at the actions of their government and say, "This action is immoral. That one is not." Those who live on the other side of the wall - our government employees and public officials - should be able to look through that window for moral guidance and support when they must make difficult decisions with which they may not be fully comfortable.

In reality, it is a fine line. The President should not be denied the ability to seek a spiritual confessor or to have his personal spiritual advisor speak to him openly about the issues he faces (of course, that advisor should go through a full security clearance). However, the President should not pick up the phone and call the Pope, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, or the Rev. Jerry Falwell to simply say, "Tell me what to do and I'll do it." The same is true of voters. They should be free to hear their spiritual advisors speak openly about the compelling political issues that confront the individuals of their churches. They should not, however, threaten them with expulsion or eternal damnation for not supporting specific political stances.

This window already exists. Perhaps the most frequent visitor to the White House over the last fifty years has been the Rev. Billy Graham. I know that Bill Clinton called Jesse Jackson to be his confessor after the Monica Lewinsky relationship was made public. I'm positive that George W. Bush has spoken at least once to a priest, pastor, or preacher. It is encouraging, to me, for a President who can anhilate the entire planet with one command to have the idea that some power greater than himself exists to which he will have to answer for his actions. History has taught us that even with such beliefs that religion can be a very malleable value. The idea of anyone with such power standing on the threshhold of oblivion without any fear of what comes next is much more horrifying to me, though.

What we have, I believe, is a debate over the size of that window. Some people want a huge picture window. Some want a bay window with a breakfast nook. Some want a peep-hole to see who is knocking. The window, however, is not anything to fear or hate. The absense of such a window, in fact, would make the wall truly problematical and would lead to the wall being torn down as faith and government truly became opposed.

Let the wall stand, but let us have our window. After all, everyone enjoys a room with a view - and government that happens in secret is a perversion of democratic values.

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