UNEASY relations between faith and public life in America got
attention last August when President Clinton praised Yale professor
Stephen Carter's new book, "The Culture of Disbelief." That
praise is echoed by Ronald Thiemann, dean of the Harvard Divinity
School. Dr. Thiemann, a Lutheran theologian, has spent five years
working on "Religion in American Public Life: A Dilemma for
Democracy," due out next summer. He recently spoke with Robert
Marquand of the editorial page.
Many Americans regard a "wall of separation" between church
and state as a bedrock principle. You are critical of it.
The separation of church and state as a metaphor has limited the
positive contribution of communities of faith in our public life.
As a principle of jurisprudence it has led to a hopelessly confused
pattern of Supreme Court decisions on First Amendment issues since
1947, when Hugo Black first enunciated it.
The notion of "separation" confuses conceptually a law that is
really about freedom. The language of separation obscures the fact
that the religion clauses are finally about free exercise of
religion. The language of separation has no place in those clauses.
It has very little place in the tradition of the US prior to 1947.
Roger Williams first used "a wall of separation" to describe how
the church should keep itself pure from the power of government.
Thomas Jefferson uses the phrase in a letter to a congregation in
Danbury, Conn., following the Constitutional Congress in 1787.
After that it has no role in American history until Hugo Black
introduces it in 1947 in Everson. Since then the concept has led to
a state of deep confusion about religion's proper role in public
Stephen Carter says American law and politics trivialize
religion. Do you agree?
Carter makes the case well that there are significant pockets of
disbelief in certain elite professions that influence public
opinion. He doesn't attempt to say the culture as a whole is rife
with disbelief. Quite the contrary. He argues, as many of us have,
that the people of America remain remarkably and resiliently
religious, more so than any other post-industrial democracy in the
But the point is that law and politics have defined themselves
in such a way, in relation to a particular interpretation of the
First Amendment, as to suggest that religion cannot be taken
seriously in those aspects of public life that intersect with
either law or politics. Importantly, Carter is saying to fellow
professionals: "Give religion a break. Back off for awhile and
listen more carefully than you have in the past. Don't immediately
jump to the conclusion that because something is religious it must
Carter, though, is more comfortable with the usefulness of the
separation of church and state than I am. I think the metaphor of
separation does very little positive work any longer and does a
great deal of negative damage.
Are doors needed in this wall?
I hope we can think in new categories about the complex relation
of religion and public life. It is more than just opening a few
doors. It is taking the bricks and starting to build all over