In so many ways we seem at the flood stage of late. The December 2004 Tsunami gave reality to a global fear of an insatiable ocean intent on creating another Atlantis. Hurricane Katrina became the most recognizable of an alphabet-busting succession of storms battering the Americas. Vast stretches of prime ocean property now lie either abandoned or essentially uninhabitable. Much of New Orleans surrendered to floodwater after the levees collapsed. And in Central America torrential rains from the succession of storms that also battered the U.S. coastline brought mudslides down to wipe out entire villages. How quickly such elements can erase our efforts at permanence!
To my mind the church-state paradigm has suffered an equally devastating assault of late. And while life goes on, some things once held axiomatic may never be the same again. The great irony is that the most telling blows to the model of the past have come from those with a religious agenda.
A few days ago I heard former U.S. president Jimmy Carter give a rather unusual interview on public radio. In some ways he had set a modern precedent for modern politics during his election campaign by proclaiming himself a born-again Christian. At the time, this rather open mixing of religious and political identity troubled many. Now it seems almost a quaint personal revelation of the peanut farmer president. Given his unabashed Christian identification, it was startling to hear him reveal how troubled he is by the changes in the church state model in the United States. He spoke of a "radical shift" in mixing church and state. Of course, what was perhaps unthinkable in the late seventies and rather startling to some a handful of years ago is probably a settled entitlement to others now. But it is worth reflecting on how far we have come..
I was a teenager when I first came to the United States from Australia, the land of my birth, and a country generally enamored with all things American. I can remember how I analyzed and evaluated everything here, and particularly noted the distinctive religious characteristics of this still-new country. When some years later I read the writings of French commentator Alexis de Tocqueville, it seemed I had found another way of looking in.
De Tocqueville was once the darling of American intelligentsia precisely because he was so impressed by what he saw in his travels here barely 50 years after the formation of this new nation. And he wrote much on the religious construct that characterized the republic. He famously wrote that "they. . . attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country mainly to the separation of church and state. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America I did not meet a single individual, of the clergy or the laity, who was not of the same opinion on this point" (Democracy in America, vol.1, p. 308).
Old stuff by a Frenchman, perhaps! But way back before we banned french fries in the Senate dining room, France was an ally and a cultural center in Europe. And De Tocqueville's audience was France—a nation that he acknowledged had a compact between church and state. That compact, as much as anything else, had alienated the people, and led to a violent revolution that swept the political leaders from power and life, and laid the social groundwork for an abiding secularism.
This magazine has often quoted Thomas Jefferson's words to the Danbury Baptists, affirming the intent of the First Amendment to erect a "wall of separation between church and state." It is a rather unambiguous declaration by a president who was a Founder and a Framer of the Constitution.
But it is narrowly true, as I hear it often said by zealots for increased church-state cooperation, that these words do not appear in the Constitution. It was a fact of history that Jefferson's election as president in 1800 was marred by bitter attacks on his personal piety. He was accused of being too secular and even antireligious. That being so, it is easy to show that his views were reinforced by others of a more acceptable religiosity, such as James Madison.
Nothing, perhaps, illustrates the perversity of the present rethinking of church-state relations and a retreat from separationism better than the fact that much of it hinges on a so-called originalist interpretation of the Constitution—which seeks to recapture what the Framers meant by what they put in the Constitution. And, yes, along the way we will dismiss what one of them says in plain English (this was pre-Webster, of course)!
It is fashionable in some conservative circles to say that the separation of church and state was a modern imposition of the Supreme Court of Justice Hugo Black, appointed in 1937. In his words, "The First Amendment has erected a wall of separation between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable." It has become de rigueur to point out, as does Alan E. Sears, of the Alliance Defense Fund, in an article on his Web site, that so many of the church-state problems of late have resulted from what this "former Ku Klux Klansman" did. I have read this personal attack on Black many times and always find it heavy-handed and an apparent non sequitur. Sort of a Constitutional Willy Horton. But on reflection I think there may be more to this, and something that goes to the heart of an undeniable shift.
The days of the Klan are largely over, and for that we can be glad. They were racist and violent. But buried beneath the grossness of its machinery were certain worldviews not so alien then, but passé now. One, of course, was an attempt to re-create the society and political power of the antebellum South. Another dynamic was fueled by the historic and abiding American identification with Protestant Christianity and a deeply and at times violent suspicion of Catholic power. I suspect that determination to keep "popery" out of government was what gave efficacy to the First Amendment for so long. After all, Reformation views lingered longer in the U.S. than elsewhere.
As late as the election of President Kennedy this nation agonized over the religious implications. That, of course, has changed. As Chuck Colson wrote in a 2000 New York Times article, defending then-candidate Bush speaking at Bob Jones University: "In truth, the gulf between Catholics and Protestants, created by the Reformation, has been bridged, and today we stand as the largest religious political coalition in America." Not all bad as it advances harmony and understanding. But "radical" to the administration of a once-unquestioned separation of church and state. Now in the new paradigm Catholics and Protestants are united in fending off the radical secularists. Suddenly the separationist view is an impediment, not a protection.
As I write this editorial, the Supreme Court wars are not yet over: Chief Justice Roberts has been installed, but nominee Justice Alito is yet to have his day before the committee. The nuclear option has not yet gone off, and we are in sitzkrieg mode. So far the public discussion has not been reassuring. Little real discussion of the underlying issues and philosophies has been had. Instead, we have seen abundant evidence that religious views of the candidates are determinative—in spite of a constitutional mandate that there be no religious test for public office. We have been reminded that rolling back Roe v. Wade is the objective. While I might feel embarrassed that abortion is institutionalized in a country so careful of other human rights and so self-consciously Christian, I perceive a greater rollback of personal rights and a greater amalgamation of church and state in the constitutional philosophy that lies behind the newly favored construct.
I'll end with another trenchant quote from observer De Tocqueville: "As long as a religion rests upon those sentiments which are the consolation of all affliction, it may attract the affections of mankind. But if it be mixed up with the bitter passions of the world, it may be constrained to defend allies whom its interests, and not the principle of love, have given to it; or to repel as antagonists men who are still attached to its own spirit, however opposed they may be to the powers to which it is allied. The Church cannot share the temporal power of the State without being the object of a portion of that animosity which the latter excites" (Democracy in America, 1831).
Lincoln E. Steed
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."