Thoughts on the Path: Separation of Church and State    
 Separation of Church and State
1 Jan 2004 @ 04:36, by Gili Chupak

Putting God Back in Politics

Published: December 28, 2003
NY Times OpEd


As the Democratic candidates for president attend religious services for the holidays, their celebrations may be tempered by an uncomfortable fact: churchgoing Americans tend to vote Republican.

An overwhelming majority of Americans consider themselves to be religious. Yet according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, people who attend church more than once a week vote Republican by 63 percent to 37 percent; people who seldom or never attend vote Democratic by 62 percent to 38 percent.

This disparity should concern Democrats - if not as a matter of faith then as a matter of politics. More important, it should concern anyone who cares about the role of religion in public life. By failing to engage Republicans in this debate, the Democrats impoverish us all.

President Bush and the Republicans clearly have an advantage with people of faith as an election year approaches. Republicans are more comfortable talking about religious values and issues, and they are quick to promise that their faith will affect their policies (even if, like their Democratic counterparts, they don't always follow through on their campaign promises).

President Bush is as public and expressive about his faith as any recent occupant of the White House. Among his first acts as president was to establish the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which helps religious and community groups get federal financing for some of their work. Although the "faith-based initiative" has turned out to be more symbolic than substantial, symbolism matters - in religion as well as politics.

The Democratic candidates, in contrast, seem uncomfortable with the subject of religion. (The exception is Joseph Lieberman, though even he seems less comfortable now than he was in 2000.) They stumble over themselves to assure voters that while they may be people of faith, they won't allow their religious beliefs to affect their political views.

For too many Democrats, faith is private and has no implications for political life. But what kind of faith is that? Where would America be if the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had kept his faith to himself?

Howard Dean, the leading challenger to President Bush, illustrates the Democrats' problem. Dr. Dean recently said he left his church in Vermont over a dispute about a bike path, and explained that his faith does not inform his politics. He has also said the presidential race should stay away from the issues of "guns, God and gays" and focus on jobs, health care and foreign policy.

By framing the issue in this way - declining to discuss overtly "religious" topics - Dr. Dean allows Republicans to define the terms of the debate. The "religious issues" in this election will be reduced to the Ten Commandments in public courthouses, marriage amendments, prayer in schools and, of course, abortion.

These issues are important. But faith informs policy in other areas as well. What about the biblical imperatives for social justice, the God who lifts up the poor, the Jesus who said, "blessed are the peacemakers"?

How a candidate deals with poverty is a religious issue, and the Bush administration's failure to support poor working families should be named as a religious failure. Neglect of the environment is a religious issue. Fighting pre-emptive and unilateral wars based on false claims is a religious issue (a fact not changed by the capture of Saddam Hussein).

Such issues could pose problems for the Bush administration among religious and nonreligious people alike - if someone were to define them in moral terms. The failure of the Democrats to do so is not just a political miscalculation. It shows they do not appreciate the contributions of religion to American life.

The United States has a long history of religious faith supporting and literally driving progressive causes and movements. From the abolition of slavery to women's suffrage to civil rights, religion has led the way for social change.

The separation of church and state does not require banishing moral and religious values from the public square. America's social fabric depends on such values and vision to shape our politics - a dependence the founders recognized.

It is indeed possible (and necessary) to express one's faith and convictions about public policy while still respecting the pluralism of American democracy. Rather than suggesting that we not talk about "God," Democrats should be arguing - on moral and even religious grounds - that all Americans should have economic security, health care and educational opportunity, and that true faith results in a compassionate concern for those on the margins.

Democrats should be saying that a just foreign and military policy will not only work better, but also be more consistent with both our democratic and spiritual values. And they must offer a moral alternative to a national security policy based primarily on fear, and say what most Americans intuitively know: that defeating terrorism is both practically and spiritually connected to the deeper work of addressing global poverty and resolving the conflicts that sow the bitter seeds of despair and violence.

Many of these policy choices can be informed and shaped by the faith of candidates and citizens - without transgressing the important boundaries of church and state.

God is always personal, but never private. The Democrats are wrong to restrict religion to the private sphere - just as the Republicans are wrong to define it solely in terms of individual moral choices and sexual ethics. Allowing the right to decide what is a religious issue would be both a moral and political tragedy.

Not everyone in America has the same religious values, of course. And many moral lessons are open to interpretation. But by withdrawing into secularism, the Democrats deprive Americans of an important debate.

Jim Wallis is editor of Sojourners magazine and the convener of Call to Renewal, a national network of churches working to overcome poverty.


Jim Wallis is indeed a great peacemaker of our time. Separation of church and state is done for a reason and I am not sure how to traverse it. Talking about God is always dangerous. For example, I was just in France and they have a much stricter interpertation of separating church and state. If the President of France, Chirac were to say "God Bless America," it would be a statement of resignation. Is that better or worse?

I am realizing more and more that the kind of dialogue one is engaged in is as important as what is being discussed. Fantascism over any understanding of the world, be it divinely inspired and usually it is, has caused tremendous suffering throughout history. Wallis talks about framing the issue. That term is used in order to win an argument. For example, "we are attacking Iraq because they have WMD". Who wins that framing of the issue? It is easy. Attack Iraq. I am weary of using that type of language because it is still manipulation, I feel we need to engage in discussion, dialogue and democracy. What we need is a change in political climate, where we ask more questions, differences are encouraged to find a common point of value. God has a place in this dialogue but She is hidden, behind the scenes, quietly inspiring the acceptance and forebearance that allows a merging of the opposite to find a common path of prosperity.

That type of holding of opposites and differences is not an easy thing to do. It is a radical departure from the life of competition which pervades our existence. This is a struggle for me. It is a struggle to build bridges of understanding between myself and others. I find a tendency for myself and others to defend our island of difference.

And the funny thing is that I find a hard to time define where my island starts and stops and what exactly i am defending. I am constantly redefining my definition of who I am by defining the differences between myself and others. My defintion exsits in the differences and similiratities to others. In close proximity to someone who is similar to me I have a tendenancy to differentiate on small grounds. This is a natural process and one to be honored, but also imoprtant to honor or the overwhelming similarity that allows the engagement of the precise and specific differentiation. It is a dance of likes and dis-likes.

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