Obiter

Perhaps the fog of time has managed to blur the reality of presidential elections past in my memory. Perhaps! But surely they couldn't have started as early as this current one. I think it began in earnest when President Clinton won his reelection-last century. And this opening year of the next century has been pretty much nonstop political hype. Well, not all hype, because it turns out all the candidates have been pretty much coaxed into volunteering views and policies that are of great interest to those who follow the church-state situation in the U.S.A.

Writing in The New York Times Magazine of January 30, Jeffrey Rosen maintains that "the presidential campaign of 2000 will be remembered as the time in American politics when the wall separating church and state began to collapse." Now, that's an apocalyptic view indeed, but one that I agree with, for the simple reason that the evidence is overwhelming and troubling.

It goes far deeper than George W. Bush speaking publicly of his conversion. And of course the rest of the field pretty much felt obligated to establish their spiritual bona fides as a result. No, it has more to do with the assumption most candidates share that now is the time to reinsert morality into public life legislatively. The baggage of that agenda includes promises to reformulate the Supreme Court by appointees who will steer us back to Christian values; voucher programs that will in essence fund a church school education for all who want it; charitable choice proposals to allow churches to administer welfare programs and money; and a whole array of other ad hoc stuff such as prayer in public schools and at ball games, the Ten Commandments on public buildings, and religion in the school curriculum.

Where this will end will be more apparent after November, but quite obviously any one of the current candidates stands ready to participate in a sea change of how we relate to the First Amendment to the Constitution.

With so much at stake it is remarkable how brief the First Amendment really is; with in fact only half of it really speaking directly to religious liberty: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." In the past these words were said to have erected a "wall of separation" between the state and church, and such a view clearly created a uniquely neutral ground for the flourishing religious diversity in the United States. Now we have the personal pronouncement of Supreme Court Chief Justice Rehnquist that this is "an outmoded metaphor" to work with.

A few days ago I watched unbelieving as a nationally known televangelist and leading protestant conservative held forth with the view that the Framers of the Constitution never intended this separation. His was a very self-serving and revisionist view of history, and while he may be sincere, it is wrong nonetheless. He seems to think that government should act as the paymaster and bully pulpit for religion. And I have no doubt that his view of government-supported religion gets into "read my lips" rethink when it is extended to covering all faith systems-be they Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, or something more "animistic."

Could it be coincidental that this fundamentalist call for what would amount to a church-state alliance comes just at the point that the movement has realized it will never win power in its own right at the ballot box, and has publicly despaired of an adequate response from a society too out of step with its moral agenda? And is it just coincidence that this call for state involvement in church matters comes just at the moment that mainline Protestantism has arrived at a happy accommodation with Roman Catholicism-after all, it was fear and intolerance of Catholics that drove much of their historic objection to such things as state aid to schools, and to Catholics in major public office (see the election of JFK).

It's worth remembering that the framers of the Constitution did truly intend to keep the powers of church and state separate. The mere fact that some of them elsewhere and at other times seemed to contradict this proves nothing except that when together this diverse group of visionaries determined that the freedom of all was only guaranteed when the state was separated from all religions. We understate the temper of their times when we ignore their obvious fear of state religion-quite obviously informed by sad memories of Oliver Cromwell's protectorate, which followed the English civil war of only a century earlier; and in its collapse leading to the flight of many to the New World. Much has been made of the Enlightenment influence on the Framers' vision for the new republic. But the Enlightenment view, while rooted in the generics of deism, was hardly at odds with the New World Protestant rejection of state religion and its coercive nature.

What was obviously present then and absent now was a relative uniformity of religious view and the expectation that Christian moral values would naturally permeate all public discourse and behavior. Today's secularity would indeed trouble any Rip Van Winkle from that era. Today's religious diversity would undoubtedly confuse them more than it does us. But as in their day, the only legitimate way to deal with this lies in respecting individual rights, and the churches in answering the crisis of moral renewal dare not risk an immoral dependence on the power of the state. We have, as did the Framers, the lessons of history in that regard. To forget them is to invite the Inquisition or some similar incubus into our free republic.

Lincoln E. Steed

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."