Religion and government - Partners, but not bedfellows

May 01, 2010|By DON STEVENSON

On Jan. 1, 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danberry Baptist Association of Connecticut citing the constitutional "wall of separation between church and state." This document helped introduce what has become an ongoing debate and dialogue in the United States for more than two centuries.

While Jefferson noted the "wall of separation" that should divide religion and government, he also provoked a prevailing question: "How shall government and religion live together?"

Some would declare that the state and religion should be in alliance with the other and speak from the same microphone. Others believe, as this writer, that the identities of religion and government require respect if the vitality of community is to be realized. This means that religion and government are not to be partners with the same mission. To be sure, religion and government are fellow travelers on spaceship earth, but life, purpose and the identity of each is compromised when they become bedfellows.


Religion and government are important and necessary containers for the expression of human life, but we must be ever so careful not to mix the ingredients each hold to the point that one speaks out of the mouth of the other. When religion is in bed with the government, the common good is vulnerable to tyranny. When the state empowers religion, coercement possibilities are birthed, freedom is threatened, and justice becomes tenuous.

Now, the separation of religion and state does not mean the separation of religion and life. The public arena should not be godless, but neither should it be dominated by religion, lest freedom is compromised. The norms of religion and government are different. Religion places its greatest priority on love. The priority of government is justice. Love can help government find out what is "just," but government cannot help religion ultimately discern what is love. Only God can do that. Such is the most vital reason for the division of religion and government. But this is not to declare that any morality religion may provide is to be closeted. Let religion and politics mingle, but for goodness sake don't make them equal or they will violate each other. Holy wars are made of this.

Religion has its work to do and government cannot be a surrogate. Government has its work to do and religion must not claim its turf. In a healthy society, turf battles between religion and government are important. Each lives alongside the other, speaks to the other, contests the other when right seems threatened or violated. Both domains are balanced by the requirement that each tolerate and respect the other. Therefore, religion and government are not adversaries, nor are they partners. Holding separate identities and purposes, religion and government each provide pillars for a strong society.

Obviously, the above position questions a very prevalent operative in the current American politic, i.e., faith-based initiatives. I believe that religion's role in society is to provide charitable services, however the rendering of said amenities is a response to a spiritual impulse, not the cause of it.

The outreach, care and concern for victims of tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes and other like causes may come from a governmental program or a spiritual impulse and "thanks be to God" for both entities. Yet, faith is not the result of "deeds of worth," but "deeds of worth" are the result of faith. And when government services are rendered, they do not need a spiritual blessing. When politics is spiritualized, as is now happening in some parts of the political spectrum, the wall between religion and government that American forebears built for freedom purposes becomes porous.

The Rev. Don Stevenson is a retired UCC minister and member of Hagerstown Community College's adjunct faculty.

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