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A Wall That Should Not Fall
While some propose tearing it down, the wall separating church and state must stand

This is not the first period in our history when there has been a widespread debate over the posting of the Ten Commandments on school house walls. In 1844 there were riots in the streets of Philadelphia over the question of which version of the Ten Commandments would be so posted.  In these riots six people were killed. Note that the 19th Century debate was not whether the Commandments should appear on school house walls, but only which version. But religious passions ran so strong around the issue that blood flowed in the city's streets.

I mention this obscure event in American history because it illustrates a problem I have with those on the religious right who insist that the US is a "Christian nation," and push for policies that would punch holes in the wall that has traditionally separated church from state.

Indeed, some suggest that if the last great event of the twentieth century was the fall of the Berlin wall and the emergence of a new world order in which capitalism prevails, the first great event of the twenty-first century may be the fall of the wall separating church and state in the United States and the emergence of a new "politics of redemption" in which the line between private faith and partisan politics disappears. 

Some welcome this trend, seeing it as the key to our future; others are deeply alarmed.  And perhaps the most interesting thing about this discussion is that traditional differences between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, born again Christians and others less clear about their religious commitments are breaking down. New alliances are being forged, and old friendships tested.

Writing in the New York Review of Books, Joan Didion traced the roots of what George Bush referred to as "compassionate conservatism."  While the term is open to many possible interpretations, Didion credits (blames?) Marvin Olasky, a journalism professor at the University of Texas, who was an advisor to Presient Bush, with doing more than anyone to realign the relationship between church and state. Olasky is a born-again, evangelical Christian and author of a highly influential book, The Tragedy of American Compassion. Published in 1992, the book so impressed William J. Bennett when he read it in 1994 that he gave it to Newt Gingrich as a Christmas present; Gingrich recommended it as required reading for all Republican members of Congress. Olasky has further refined his thinking in the more recent Compassionate Conservatism, which is nothing less than a manifesto for the transformation of political life in America.

In these books Olasky spells out the critical role that "faith based" organizations will play in the politics of redemption. He also makes an important distinction between newer "faith based" organizations and traditional ones like Church World Service or Catholic Charities that have long worked hand in hand with government.  Writes Didion:

This use of "faith-based" is artful, and worth study. Goodwill was founded by a Methodist minister and run during its early years out of the Morgan Memorial Chapel in Boston, which would seem to qualify it as based in faith, although not, in the sense that Olasky apparently construes the phrase, as "faith-based." "Faith-based," then, is, as Olasky uses it, a phrase with a special meaning, a code phrase, employed to suggest that certain worthy organizations have been prevented from receiving government funding solely by virtue of their religious affiliation. This is misleading, since "religiously affiliated" organizations can and do receive such funding. The organizations that have not are those deemed "pervasively sectarian," a judgment based on the extent to which they proselytize, or make religious worship or instruction a condition of receiving aid. This, the Supreme Court has to date maintained, would violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Olasky, and others, believe that the very concept of a "wall" separating church and state is a fiction, a myth that should be exposed as such. 

Writes Olasky, "There's nothing about 'separation of church and state' in the Constitution or the First Amendment. That was Thomas Jefferson's personal expression in a letter written over a decade after the amendment was adopted.... The founding fathers would be aghast at court rulings that make our part of the world safe for moral anarchy."

Which brings me back to 1844 and those Philadelphia riots.

Just as passionate differences about the Ten Commandments were so strongly felt that they caused riots in the streets of Philadelphia more than a hundred and fifty years ago, those same passions fuel the fires of culture war in the US today. If you want to see examples of partisan "bitterness and bickering," all you have to do is attend the national meeting of any of the major religious groups in America. Arguments over gay marriage, homosexuality, abortion, Intelligent Design and evolution, the interpretation of Scripture, what forms of worship are most appropriate in the contemporary context ... these and many more hotly contested issues divide the courts of our churches just as they divide Congress.

If Marvin Olasky and others believe that Supreme Court decisions upholding the wall of separation between church and state have served no better purpose than to make room for "moral anarchy," I have news for him. The way out of moral anarchy cannot be found by turning our school systems, our poverty programs, or our public life generally over to the leadership of "faith based" organizations that are themselves deeply divided over basic questions about what true "faith" is. Religious passions and religious differences are the stuff that wars are made of.  The founders of our republic knew this very well. That is why they erected the wall that was designed to separate religious passion from the more rational deliberations which they believed would contribute to good government.

The founders of our republic got it right. Religious passions are important; they are the motivating force of my own life. They are also powerful and potentially dangerous, as the victims of religious persecution around the world can testify. We dismantle the wall the separates these passions from the seat of government at our own grave peril.  This is one wall that should not fall.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
  CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.