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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Which brings me back to 1844 and those Philadelphia riots.
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.
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.
You are invited to join our Forum
and discuss any issues
pertaining to faith or the search for it.
Your comments are published here instantly.
(To see the current list of
topics your browser must allow Active Content)
Please take a moment to let us know you
Just send us an email to subscribe to our free newsletter.
If you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call 212-864-5436
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,
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.