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Rick Santorum and the wall of church-state separation

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on March 7, 2012 at 8:45 am with 1 Comment »
March 7, 2012 8:45 am

This editorial appears in Wednesday’s print edition.

American tradition may keep church and state at arm’s length, but it doesn’t prevent candidates from bringing religion into politics – as Rick Santorum is the latest to prove.

The Republican presidential candidate has struggled to clarify one metaphysically tinged statement after another, including his assertion that Barack Obama harbors a “phony theology.” (Santorum later said he was talking about the president’s world view, not questioning his Christianity.)

But if we’re getting all picky about words, Santorum was right on one point: “Absolute” separation of church and state isn’t what America is about.

Absolute separation – taking the phrase to its literal extreme – would require, for example, that a city not connect its water main and sewage line to a church’s plumbing system. A requirement like that would be unconstitutional because it would discriminate against a religious institution. It’s the kind of thing that might have happened in the old Soviet Union.

What the First Amendment mandates, according to a long line of Supreme Court precedents, is neutrality toward religion. Not hostility and not favoritism, but a free market of ideas about God, the cosmos and everything else.

Getting picky again, the phrase “separation of church and state” is not found in the Constitution, as people who don’t like the idea keep pointing out. It is commonly attributed to Thomas Jefferson, an architect of America’s religious freedom, who used those words reassuringly in a letter to a group of Connecticut Baptists worried about state-enforced beliefs.

Getting pickier, Jefferson’s full phrase is “wall of separation of church and state,” and he borrowed it from Roger Williams, the maverick Calvinist who founded Providence, R.I., as a haven for religious freedom in the 1600s. Williams’ full phrase was “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”

The wall between church and state does not seal off the one from the another; it marks the boundary and discourages trespassing. Americans can argue how high or low it should be, but the framers clearly established it when they prohibited religious tests for public offices and forbade Congress from creating a state church or interfering with the free exercise of religion. Like Williams, they had a horror of the theocracies that had spawned centuries of persecution and bloodshed.

You can talk over a wall. Santorum’s invocation of religious themes is nothing new. Obama has done it; George W. Bush did it; Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Abraham Lincoln did it. Liberal secularists who think religious convictions have no place in politics should remember the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and the abolitionists, whose passion for social equality was often rooted in a profound sense of divine justice.

But the separation of church and state – as opposed to the separation of conviction from politics – is a nonnegotiable foundation of freedom.

Believers who don’t like it should consider that the United States remains the most devout of all developed nations. Europeans with a history of state-managed belief are the world’s least religious people; by comparison, the “garden of the church” has flourished in the country that invented constitutional separation.

Read more here: http://www.thenewstribune.com/2012/03/07/2056221/rick-santorum-and-the-wall-of.html#storylink=cpy

 

Leave a comment Comments → 1
  1. nwcolorist says:

    I am very encouraged to see the TNT’s position on this issue. It’s a positive step in correcting the decades old misconception about religion’s true role in society.

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