Protect the Boundaries Between Religion and Government

Across more than 50 years of ministry, the overarching theme of my work has been protecting the boundaries between religion and government because I value both.
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I don't get it; I simply don't get it. Presidential campaigns move as quickly as American voters shift their focus on the issue of the day; I know that. Understandably, the urgency of the immediate often allows a matter of sustained historic importance to get lost in the shuffle to get to whatever is next. But, I don't understand how a watershed comment that affects potential change in the very foundation of our country could have so short a life. The danger inherent in the statement is exceeded only by the danger of Americans not paying enough attention to it.

I never thought I would hear a candidate for the presidency of this nation say that the idea of an absolute separation between church and state made him want to vomit. Rick Santorum made that comment last week, challenging the substance of John F. Kennedy's landmark 1960 speech to the Houston Ministerial Association in which he affirmed church-state separation and promised to resign the office of the president if the dictates of his faith came into conflict with the mandates of the Constitution. Even with Mr. Santorum's later attempt to take back the harshest of his rhetoric, his proposal of an America without the guarantee of the First Amendment - or, in other words, a country in which religious liberty is interpreted to forbid only the government from not telling "the church" what to do, but not vice versa - is still the most frightening statement on a presidential campaign that I can remember.

Mr. Santorum indicated that he would have government keep out of religion, but that religion should be free to engage fully in the political process. Which religion? Is the candidate assuming all religions can do this or only his religion? But, if he is serious about no government involvement in religion, would Mr. Santorum join ranks with those of us who believe that federal funds should not be going to faith-based ministries--that's a government intrusion into religion, is it not? He demonstrated no inclination to do that while serving in the U.S. Senate. And, why should religion not seek to tell the government what to do? There is a vast difference between religion's involvement for the purpose of contributing to the common good and individual religions' involvement in government for the purpose of turning their respective theologies and moral values into public law.

In my personal experience across more than 50 years of ministry, the overarching theme of my work has been protecting the boundaries between religion and government because I value both. Note my words because I choose them carefully. I am a passionate advocate for institutional separation between church and state, but never have I supported the idea of individuals being barred from drawing upon their religious beliefs in political decision-making. Perhaps, "church-state separation" is no longer the best language for conveying the meaning of religious freedom. The prophetic impact of religion in this nation has been of inestimable worth. However, the Religious Right's attempted take-over of the government has been incredibly damaging. I understand well the healing role that religion can play in the lives of many individuals and, where appropriate, in our national dialogue. My faith and my citizenship are inextricably connected, but my experience and my understanding of history commission me to protect those boundaries, rather than seek to tear them down.

To me, boundaries imply an arrangement in which religion and government can see and hear each other without compromising each other's independence and violating each other's role in the public square. People of faith have played an important role in leading many of the moral campaigns in our nation's history - civil rights, abolition, anti-poverty, and women's suffrage, to name just a few. At the same time, the government has a role in protecting religious freedom and ensuring that my rights to practice my faith freely are not infringed needlessly, but also are not extended so far as to trample on the rights of my neighbor.

I am sure Mr. Santorum is a man of faith - as am I - and I have no issue with him speaking about his faith as a way of informing voters about who he is as a leader. Indeed, I appreciate his candor. We know what his vision of government is. Honestly, Mr. Santorum has clearly articulated a trend in our nation that often is seen only subtly. I have not yet heard complaints or challenges in response to President Obama's request for his supporters in the African American community to become "congregation captains" to build support in that faith community and further his re-election campaign--if not an illegal request, certainly an ethically-questionable request from the highest office in the land dedicated to protecting both the substance and the spirit of the Constitution. Other Republican primary candidates also are using religion as a tool in their political strategy.

As it always has been, religious freedom is once again under attack in this nation. Why, some religious and political leaders are trying to rewrite the definition of this Constitutional guarantee--not with an eye on the rights of everybody, but with a bias related to their own theology and ideology.

Surely, Mr. Santorum's jarring attack on President Kennedy's support for religious freedom should be a wake-up call for all of us who care about freedom, politics, government, and religion. At stake in his words is a danger to the American way of life that has allowed religion to thrive in this nation without becoming entangled with and divided by the government. To turn to other issues and not give more attention to Mr. Santorum's attack on religious freedom is to fail to correct a flaw in the heart of this nation, which if in the heart of a person could be fatal.

President Kennedy promised to resign the office of president if a decision he needed to make or an action he needed to take as president ever required him "to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest." The American people have a right to expect the same from every candidate for that high office. I would ask Mr. Santorum and all other candidates for the presidency, despite their party, to answer for themselves and for the American people whether or not they are prepared to do as John Kennedy did--make a promise that respects both the federal constitution and personal religion.

In the end, I hope all candidates in this year's presidential election will be guided by what President Kennedy said half a century ago: "I will make my decision ... in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates."

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