Separation of church and state

We have all heard of the Separation of Church and State doctrine. Most of us have learned about it in school. Few remember the details and without too much thought, many assume it means an absolute separation of all things government from all things religious. That is seriously incorrect.

Our founding fathers assumed the Christian morals and values of political representatives would be reflected in their leadership. Our very law has its roots in Judeo-Christian teaching. The concern expressed in the first amendment was not to protect government from religious influence but rather to protect the free exercise of religion from government.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

First Amendment

This has become so contorted in the minds of many as to almost mean the exact opposite. That is, the duty of elected officials is to somehow strictly partition their religious faith from the exercise of their public office. Moreover, it is apparently now correct for the government to impose actions on religious organizations contrary to their beliefs. For example, requiring Catholic adoption agencies to not “discriminate” against homosexual couples or force Catholic doctors to perform abortions.

John F. Kennedy, our first and so far only Catholic president, made the problem much worse. Worse not only for Catholics, but for all faithful Christians. In his famous speech given in Houston on September 12th, 1960 he said:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute…   I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair…   and whose fulfillment of his Presidential oath is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation…

These were his personal beliefs, not those of the Church or required by law. To our detriment these words have been taken as gospel by many. Catholics, and all Christians, have a duty to live their faith. While it is obviously true that politicians would be wrong to be proxies of their religious leaders, they are not exempted from knowing their faith and reflecting it in all that they do.

When a politician runs for office claiming to be a Catholic or other Christian, voters assume that person will reflect the faith they profess, to the best of their ability, if elected to office. If not, why would the religious affiliation of a candidate ever come up? If the candidate has no intention of living their faith then they should at least have the integrity Kennedy did and say so.

Some of our political leaders are exemplary. Catholic Democrat Brad Stupak has garnered a great deal of attention in his determination to see that much needed healthcare reform does not come at the cost of taxpayer funded abortion. The pressure on him to back-down and put the interests of his political party first have been enormous. Congressman Stupak’s efforts are in-line with Church teaching and are no less than that required of every faithful Catholic.

There are many other politicians, while claiming to be Christian, are pro-abortion – often stridently so. Sadly that includes several Catholics in the highest leadership positions. If it were not already bad enough to ardently support abortions under the Catholic banner, they have repeatedly misrepresented the teaching of the Church and US Catholic Bishops. This has required the bishops to take the extraordinary step of issuing public statements in response to those false claims.

I believe these pro-abortion politicians simply place politics ahead of their faith. The harm that they do through abortion promotion is obvious. They also bring scandal to the Church and mislead the faithful from the truth of the Church’s teaching. Their public actions speak volumes about their character.

On Monday, Archbishop Charles Chaput (Archbishop of Denver) spoke at Houston Baptist University. His talk covered these and related points very well. He is worth listening to:

Update: see also the excellent post from Joshua Mercer: A Faith that is Personal, Not Private.

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