Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Manger Danger: Let's Keep Uncle Sam out of the Nativity Scene by Reinforcing the Wall between Church and State

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Manger Danger: Let's Keep Uncle Sam out of the Nativity Scene by Reinforcing the Wall between Church and State

Article excerpt


"OUR VARIED BELIEFS CAN BRING US TOGETHER TO feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted; to make peace where there is strife and rebuild what has broken; to lift up those who have fallen on hard times. This is not only our call as people of faith, but our duty as citizens of America, and it will be the purpose of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships."

With these words in February 2009, President Barack Obama signaled his continuation of a program George W. Bush placed at the heart of his 2000 compassionate conservatism campaign--taxpayer-funded faith-based initiatives. For many, Obama's action continued the erosion of the separation of church and state in the United States.

Indeed, the American constitutional principle of the separation of church and state has found many detractors of late, both in politics and religion. A spate of cases about the public display of the Ten Commandments got an Alabama judge removed from the bench, to the outrage of many believers. Every holiday season features another religious leader denouncing the "war on Christmas" and enlisting the faithful to tear down the "so-called wall of separation," which is contrary to the nation's "Judeo-Christian heritage."

It's true that the religion clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution--"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"--do not include the language "a wall of separation." That metaphor comes from an 1802 letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association, in which Jefferson asserts that, taken together, the two clauses "build a wall of separation between church and state."

But beyond the fact that the metaphor of "the wall" deftly summarizes a constitutional principle, it is also a natural fit for contemporary American Catholics. The reason: Separation most fully embodies Catholic teaching on faith and religious liberty, rooted in the dignity of the human person.

The Second Vatican Council's Dignitatis Humanae (Declaration on Religious Liberty) declares that "the human person has a right to religious freedom," meaning that "everyone should be immune from coercion by individuals, social groups, and every human power." The practice of religion consists of "voluntary and free internal acts by which human beings direct themselves to God." If civil authority "presumes to control or restrict religious activity, it must be judged to have exceeded the limits of its power."

In other words separation of church and state both respects the nature of religious faith and supports the maturation of religious liberty as described by the council. Religious institutions will breathe freer and thrive if government does nothing to entangle itself with religious ministries.

WHAT DOES THIS SEPARATION mean on a practical level? Clearly, government cannot erect a state church. But from the point of view of the religious believer's best interest, to what extent should government promote and advance the ministry of religious institutions?

The most common point of contention on this issue relates to religious displays on public property, such as displays of nativity scenes or the Ten Commandments. While religious groups may initially be excited about seeing religious-themed artifacts erected with government support, there is a high price to pay.

The current legal criteria for evaluating whether such government-supported displays pass constitutional muster includes whether a fictitious so-called "reasonable observer" would understand the display as an endorsement of religion by the state.

And herein lies the rub: Anyone who sees life-size plastic models of Jesus in his manger, Mary, Joseph, an angel, shepherds, and some Wise Men standing alone on the town square will likely see an endorsement of religion.

So, what to do? …

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