The Wall of Separation
- Created on Thursday, 08 September 2011 17:06
It seems like recent news has been flooded with commentary about the destructive role that religion plays in political discourse and policy making, especially in relation to the Republican candidates for President. In the beginning of an election cycle where fear and foundational beliefs about community and society weigh heavy on voters’ minds, perhaps the emerging conversation about the relationship between religion and government is natural.
At JRLC we are frequently asked about the relationship between faith and politics, and inevitably when we meet with groups who are new to our work someone mentions the phrase “separation of church and state.” I find it telling to look back at the origins and intent of the phrase when considering its implications in our current context.
What is written in the First Amendment to the Constitution (and serves as the basis for the phrase), says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Thomas Jefferson’s intent is to protect religion from the interference of government, and to ensure that no specific belief system is required of citizens through law or government.
But the intent was not to restrict people of faith from participating in political life, or to require them to check their beliefs at the door (which for most people would be impossible to do). Jefferson himself was religions person, and found moral guidance in his Christian beliefs that compelled him to participate in public life. Where he seemed to draw the “wall of separation” had more to do with instituting laws that interfered with a person’s right to choice and religious freedom or that dictated a specific morality based on one religions belief system.
In a conversation last week with a group of Luther Seminary students, we reflected on the role that clergy have in community life beyond their congregations. As people of faith we are obligated by our religious convictions to be active members in our community working for the common good. In Minnesota, our democracy and political process are the structures we as a society have decided to live under and therefore our belief systems require our participation.
In a statement we issued last session titled We Will Not Remain Silent, we outlined the significant role that faith should play in civic participation. The argument is summed up nicely: “Our identities as religious people compel us to speak out on behalf of the common good. This is not to compete with the democratic process, but to enrich it.”
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