`Wall of Separation' Outmoded

The Christian Science Monitor, November 26, 1993 | Go to article overview

`Wall of Separation' Outmoded


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 life.

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 West.

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 be illiberal."

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 again. …

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