On the Separation of Church and State

My parish priest, Fr. Patrick Reardon, makes some important points with regard to the First Amendment and freedom of the press and of the free exercise of religion:

It is important to examine carefully the precise wording of this very precisely worded affirmation. It does not say that religion and the press shall be prohibited from bringing political influence and power to bear on Congress. It says, rather, that Congress must not bring political influence and power to bear on religion and the press. In not the slightest respect does the First Amendment restrict the influence and activities of religion and the press with respect to the political life of the nation. The restrictions in this amendment are laid entirely on the government, none of them on religion and the press.

In order to appreciate this distinction, we may consider how the First Amendment commonly applies–and has always applied–to the press. Everyone expects the press to be actively involved in political life. No one is surprised when newspapers, radio stations, and television networks comment at length on political activity. We hear no complaints that a constitutional principle has been violated when a city newspaper or a local television channel espouses a particular political cause or endorses a particular political candidate. On the contrary, this is exactly what we envisage as healthy to the political process. We welcome the interference of the press into political matters. This is the state of affairs that the First Amendment was painstakingly written to preserve. Those responsible for the crafting of that amendment were convinced that a vigorous and vocal press is beneficial to the life of the nation.

The prohibition that restricts Congress from interfering with the press has never been regarded as some kind of “wall of separation” between government and the press. We do not expect to find on the editorial page of The Chicago Tribune a statement that says, for example, “Although we ourselves personally approve a woman’s right to choose, we refrain from pushing the point in these pages, lest we appear to be imposing our own moral persuasion on the normal workings of the courts and the legislature. The traditional wall of separation between Press and State must be maintained at all peril.” Likewise, we would be more than slightly miffed if The Weekly Standard were to declare, “No standard is more serious than the separation of government and the press. Therefore, we think it inappropriate for us to interject our own views into the political process and impose our morality on others. We are willing to admit, however, strictly in our private and personal capacity, that our own view of ‘gay marriage’ is something other than completely favorable.” We never expect statements like that from the press.


Father’s comments, it seems to me, make perfect sense. I have commented on this notion of the separation of church in state in this post and this one as well. Father Reardon gives support to my assertion that the notion of separation of Church and State is philosophically and politically untenable.

He goes on to say:

Now, because freedom of religion is guaranteed by exactly the same First Amendment that guarantees freedom of the press—which it does in identical terms—what is true of the one is in every respect true of the other. If there is no “wall of separation” between Press and State, there is no such wall separating Church and State. Just as the First Amendment lays no restrictions on the press in political matters, it lays no restrictions on religion in political matters. Both are governed by the identical provision.

For the same reason, if we expect the press to argue for its own views with respect to the decisions and workings of government, we should expect no less from the churches. If we are not shocked when a newspaper editor takes a very firm stand in favor of “abortion rights” and employs all the influence of his position to advance this view, it is illogical to be shocked when a bishop takes a very firm stand in favor of “the rights of the unborn” and employs all the influence of his position to advance that view. The same First Amendment protects both the editor and the bishop. The government neither ties nor shortens the arm of either.

Father’s summation of the main argument is extremely important:

The motive inspiring the First Amendment is the key to its understanding. It was the conviction of the founders of this country that the freedom of Americans was to be embodied and expressed in institutions other than the government. They did not believe that the government had all the answers. The government, on the contrary, because it bears not the sword in vain, always has about it some aspect of coercion. The better to insure the government’s own freedom, therefore, the First Amendment provides that there will always be other institutions left free to bring their own influence to bear on the government. Chief among these institutions are the press and the churches. The press and the churches, understanding this to be their role, have always functioned this way.

24 thoughts on “On the Separation of Church and State

  1. Okay…cool.

    Here is where I want to push it.

    The government gives freedom to the church and vice versa. Fine. But can the government express a religious tradition to the exclusion of others? Can it express non-religious traditions (secular humanism, secular science) to the exclusion of other such traditions or even religious traditions?

    This is where I want to say that it cannot do any such thing. I think you would agree. I also want to say that expressing any religious tradition is dangerous for the government to do. This is not where you and I agree. Heh.

    So, for example, posting the Ten Commandments with the intention of saying “this is a Christian nation” is problematic unless you are simply trying to say “Christians live here.”

    We cannot have only the Ten Commandments in the classroom, for example. We need other religious traditions represented as well. We need non-religious views represented. Put the Ten Commandments back in there…and add other stuff as well.

    Or we need neither. The freedom to be the goverment means, potentially, the freedom to not be affiliated with a religious tradition, to not express any religious traditions at all.

    The idea that is expressed in the Constitution also stems from the historical reality of religious persecution…a doctrinal persecution. As a Trinitarian understanding is (arguably) essential in the Christian understanding of “God,” what then do we mean when “One nation, under God…” is said? Is it a more fluid definition? “Higher Power?” Or does it mean “Father, Son and Holy Spirit?” If it means the latter, then the government is espousing doctrine and that may, potentially, infringe upon the religious freedom of non-Christians in this country.

    and around and around we go…

  2. Tripp:

    Father explicitly notes in the remainder of the article (I only snipped the most salient points) that one is certainly free from the press (to not buy newspapers, listen to radio, or watch TV) as well as from religion (just don’t go).

    But in a representative democracy the whole point is that the will of the people is expressed through tallying votes. We get this when it comes to voting for President. No one, for example, seriously suggests that we should have a president for each social/political/religiou/professional/etc. group. We have one president. We may thoroughly detest the one we get. But that’s the nature of democracy. We are responsible for working politically to see that our particular interests are guarded.

    So, if a majority of Americans want vote to represent the Christian faith in the nation’s (or state’s) laws, then so be it. If Muslims are able to persuade a majority of votes for representing their side, so be it. That’s the nature of democracy, the most votes gets the prize, as it were.

    Would I have a problem with a government that doesn’t represent my faith. Heck, yes, I do! I have a government that violates my understanding of the moral worth of the life in the womb, that violates my belief about the freedom of exercising my religion and my freedom to speak my mind without coercion (endorsing a particular candidate from the pulpit of a church, say). But if I really want to change things, I have to work to get a majority of votes to overturn the law and/or get political representatives in office who will appoint judges who will interpret the law rather than write new law (Roe v. Wade, e. g.).

    Thus, Christians are to be active in government at all levels are are right to use their influence and power to change the laws.

    That’s the way our Constitution works.

  3. So, if a majority of Americans want vote to represent the Christian faith in the nation’s (or state’s) laws, then so be it. If Muslims are able to persuade a majority of votes for representing their side, so be it. That’s the nature of democracy, the most votes gets the prize, as it were.

    Sure. I agree. But the majority of Americans as you say, do not vote affirming Christian notions, nor do all Christians vote the same way. You want to amass voters. Fine. But there must be a line where we say “Freedom of Religion in a representative democracy means all religions are represented…” This does not mean that we have a representative for each religious tradition. Of course not.

    It just means that the President or whomever is responsible to all of us. Our system of representation means just that…the wellbeing of all of us, not the agenda of the noisy (left or right).

  4. I do accept the idea that the founding Fathers were fiathful protestants and that the US was founded as a protestant nation that was to allow other religions to also be practiced.

    That is no longer the nation in which we live, nor is it the culture in which we live.

    Today we’d have to say that, at best, the majority of folks are “spiritual” and they allow us religious folks to be here too.

    Sadly there is no reason to imagine that American Cultural Religion any more than protestantism in general, would “appeal to the Fathers” rather than personal reading. Only the ultra-conservatives tries to undersand the mind of the founding Fathers when reading the constitution. There is no “orthodox Americanism”: all Americans, including the courts, and us Orthodox, are protestants as far as the Constitution is concerned. Each one of us brings his own reading to the text.

    It seems to me that many of the cultural conservatives, including Fr P, are trying to (re)establish something that was never there (because it wasn’t Orthodox in the first place) and can not be now (because it’s not Christian any more, but, at best, spiritual).

  5. We agree on important points, it seems to me.

    I don’t agree, however, with your comment: “But there must be a line where we say ‘Freedom of Religion in a representative democracy means all religions are represented…'” I know that you say this does not mean a special representative, so I’m not criticizing that. But I would say two things: a) everyone is represented, locally, statewide, and nationally–but not everyone makes their voice heard, nor does everyone’s representative pay heed to every single voice whom they represent, and b) it is not the government’s job to actively seek to represent all views, but rather to ensure that everyone who seeks to be heard can be heard through the normal constitutional structures.

    And while ideally our government would represent the most broad principles of all citizens, it is up to the citizens to work to have their voices heard. If the noisy left or right are the ones being heard, good for them. The rest of us silent ones bear the responsibility for our lack of action.

  6. Huw:

    I’m not sure I understand your point.

    I don’t think Father Patrick is trying to establish an Orthodox United States. It seems to me his argument is much more narrow: religion should be free (as the press is free) to assert its influence on the government. Admittedly, one might argue that when America was of a more united (Protestant) mind, that influence was exercised by, as it were, default. But the principle Father is arguing seems to me to be the same then and now, even if the present social realities are markedly different.

    But could you clarify more what you mean?

  7. I can’t speak for Huw, but he says one thing that I was thinking. Fr. Patrick, a very bright guy to say the least, may be looking through a lense that is…um…unexpected by the framers of the Constitution. We are all Protestants, and thus have only the avenue of the “special interest group” for us to apply by the father’s estimation, and I think yours, Cliff.

    And I want to draw a broader brush stroke. The purpose of the constitution was to insure that any religious ideology would not hold sway on another’s freedom. So, the Seventh Day Baptists cannot legislate that all churches celebrate the Lord’s Day Saturday evening. Even if they had the votes to manage it, it would be unconstitutional because the representative (senator, president etc) represents all interests, even the silent ones. They are responsible to the whole of the constitution, so there are limits to what we can vote into being in this country.

    Some of those checks and ballances do manifest themselves as voting blocks and special elections. But mostly, the representative leader is simply responsible to the whole of the country and not just those who voted for them. Oaths and the Constitution reflect that.

    To say other wise gives creedance to the notion that since I did not vote for W, he is not my President…or at least that is the extreme of the argument.

  8. I disagree: there’s no way one can be representative of everyone’s view. And in practical fact, no politicisn is representative of everyone’s view. That’s a fantasy. It sounds good in the land of inclusidiversity, but it’s a fairy tale. Hasn’t Moore showed that? Politics is about the wealthy and political interest groups, right?

    The fact of the matter is, and the constitution clearly is written in this way, the government is to be influenced by the voters. To infringe on these voters’ established rights of freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, freedom of assembly, etc., especially in the arena of influencing the government, is as anti-Bill of Rights as one can get.

    What I think particularly illustrative in Father’s blog entry was the comparison of free exercise of religion with the free press. I think his pointing out the complete contradiction in how we handle these rights a very telling weakness of the present separtion of Church and State argument. If we don’t infringe the free press the way we do the free exercise of religion, then why? It seems to me, if we want to be philosophically and politically consistent, then we should extend the same application of free exercise of religion that we do to the free press.

  9. Sorry if I was vague. I don’t disagree that religious groups should be able to bring political pressure on the Gov’t (although I do disagree with his first point in the article that Christians should be patriots – even our saints disagree on that front).

    But our American legal tradition is not, pardon the phrase, patristic. Rather it is talmudic.

    Thus while the Orthodox may use the “mind of the Fathers” to access the meaning of the scriptures or the liturgy, American courts decidedly do *not* function that way, viz the “mind of the founders”. Court cases are, at best, seen as “building a fence around” the constitution. Option A may be unconstitutional, so we shall avoid A by making, also, option B illegal. Later another case makes Option C illegal, thus to better avoid B and so also A which would be unconstitutional.

    Eventually, like “do not boil a kid in it’s mother’s milk” we end up with “do not use the butter knife on the same table as a plate that has once contained your pot roast.”

    Understanding what the Founders intended has been, for nearly 200 years, pointless.

    Additionally, it is kinda silly, I think, to imagine that what they intended (in a nearly universally protestant/deist world) should apply to us now in any literal sense.

    Thus while the, if you will, midrash on the mitzvot of keeping a free press has been “no laws governing the press, short of laws about photographs of dead soldiers”; the midrash on the mitzvot of Church and State has been to require that the two do not talk to each other.

    It may be the *wrong* reading. But to set it otherwise would require the undoing of several (actually 100s) of of Midrashic commentaries and the disavowal of quite a bit of our current Talmud. That is not impossible.

    But it would equally require the creation of a new talmud, a new midrash, a new legal understanding that, for quite some time, has not been present in the Courts.

  10. Huw:

    You certainly have a creative account of U. S. law and constitutional interpretation, and, I must add in fairness, one that is, more often than not, the way the law does work here.

    But while acknowledging reality is important, the genius, to me, of our country’s setup is that we, as citizens, can make a change. Admittedly, we cannot make the sort of quick changes that once may have been possible in the past. Now we must not only mobilize a citizenry who is more interested in personal consumption than in civic responsibility, but we must do so against, oftentimes, the powerfully entrenched lobbies and special interest groups. And even more daunting, to truly ensure the changes we make hold, we must also make changes in the office holders in the judiciary.

    But that’s the nature of our democratic foundations.

    Making those changes are hardly unconstitutional, though they are difficult to achieve.

    I do not think the FMA on marriage likely to pass, nor likely to pass the Supremes (where it will surely end up). But the fact of the matter is, it might. And if the voters, through the means of the press and the exercise of their religion can accomplish it, then they will merely be enacting the constitution which protects those rights to do what they will have done.

  11. Huw is on to something.

    Somewhere (a dream?) I heard that one of the reasons why we still have the same constitution that was drafted so long ago is because it is vague and open to interpretation. Perhaps that was a part of the “original” intent of the framers. Thus the document is meant to be interpreted and reinterpreted.

    Now, how Christian play within its framework is a challenge to me. What I hear Cliff espousing is that Christians, in order to play in the constitutional waters, must take on the capitalist mode, the democratic mode and even a vague type of social Darwinism. I am not convinced this is what Cliff means, but I am getting shades of it.

    “I disagree: there’s no way one can be representative of everyone’s view. And in practical fact, no politicisn is representative of everyone’s view. That’s a fantasy. It sounds good in the land of inclusidiversity, but it’s a fairy tale. Hasn’t Moore showed that? Politics is about the wealthy and political interest groups, right?”

    We do not represent the views. We represent the people. All. The civil servant serves all people. You may be elected by a platform, but the responsibility reaches much further than that giving some bounds to the reach of political ideologies.

    This is why the abortion debate is so sticky. It is not just about whether you can get enough people together that say abortion is a bad thing. You also have to convince people that it is in the governments interest to enforce laws that deny a woman/couple/family to decide that for themselves in all situations. There are those who think that abortion is wrong who will defend the Constitutional right of a woman to choose.

    Another example…
    We have murder…right. Basically illegal. Killing is bad. But it is more complicated than that. Murder 1, 2, Manslaughter (several permutations), accidental death, self defence, juvenile claims etc. This gets really complicated. Huw is right. We fence off the Constitution and the citizenry from one another. You may choose to kill in your own interest. Is that in the interest of the state? Sometimes it is. Sometimes it is not.

    The Constitution is about the interest of the state. Is it in the interest of the state for a block of Jehovas Witness voters to legislate something that infringes on the rights of others to practice their faith? Doubtful. Thus, it will not happen.

    Maybe it is better to say it this way. We are free to be the church, to argue among one another without punishment from the state. However, step on the freedom of the state (which include the right to exercise our religion freely), then you have trouble.

    So, like there is with the press…no more reporting the landing zones of the troops like in Panama…and with lawful protests…hundreds of arrests in downtown Chicago…there are limits to those freedoms.

    You wanna gather enough people to pass an ammendment to the constitution. Give it a shot. That is a hard road to travel. It has been tried twice (?) and both have proven failures.

  12. Tripp:

    You wrote: “What I hear Cliff espousing is that Christians, in order to play in the constitutional waters, must take on the capitalist mode, the democratic mode and even a vague type of social Darwinism.”

    Um . . . you definitely misread me. No advocacy of capitalism per se (though I think it the best of fallen economic systems that has reared its head thus far), and definitely no social Darwinism.

    But certainly an advocacy of democracy. This is not an inherent contradiction of Christian faith, just as Paul could write Romans 13 in the face of emperors like Caligula and Nero without denying the Christian faith.

    You and I will have to agree to disagree over your “socialist” utopia. 🙂

  13. I am not trying to be utopian. We have a bi-partisan system. But what I am warning against is this: A guy is elected to a position. He only does what those elected him have asked. He meets his platform promises, yes, but there may be an infringement of the rights he is sworn to uphold. The platform cannot oppose the constitution.

    Like you pointed out, there is a system of checks and ballances. There is a reason why it is so hard for a President to get much done. It is to protect us from that person and allow the office to operate.

    I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.

    That is the oath of office. Now, this can mean very little or a great deal. I tend to ascribe a lot of “socialism” to it. You may have something there. But at the same time, the individual who is Clinton/Bush/Washington needs to disappear and the office step forward. It is imperfect. It is haphazard. Still, it is, I believe, the aspiration of the oath. Preservation, protection…not change or overturn or add on to.

    The particularities of that role of president are interesting and are designed to uphold all people through the Constitution.

    I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.

    Good thing Jesus is helping the senator out. Heh. Again, support and defend the constitution. You are right that the voters can push the constitution around. But it is designed to push back. Those elected to office are its arms and legs. We may get them there, but the responsibilities they have change to some degree when they get in office. That is not socialism. That is a constitutional representative democracy. A lot of modifiers for “democracy.” This is not Athens.

  14. But while acknowledging reality is important, the genius, to me, of our country’s setup is that we, as citizens, can make a change.

    That is, I think only 50% of the truth as it applies to Christians: the rest of it, the ballance, if you will, against which we must weigh all such possibilities, is “working out your own salvation in fear and trembling.”

    Does any political action (possible, legal, illegal, impossible or otherwise) impinge or further your own “working out”?

    I think several attempts at legislating morality (agreeable or disagreeable morality) have resulted in many folks getting downright uppity.

    It strikes me in most cases as decidedly unsalvific.

    It may be possible, but does that mean it is always the right course of action?

    Over on Doxos, a comment was posted noting that St Alexander ran out leading the armies in the defense of Russia, while at the same time Sts Boris and Gleb saw the hand of God in the invaders and opted to pray instead (I hope I have that story right). The Church holds them all in the list of saints.

    That’s the way I’d like to see us deal, today. Some of us may find our salvation in political action… some of us may find therein our damnation. Let us just hold each other in prayer without demanding an all or nothing response.

  15. Yeah, and what Huw said. Somewhere along the line I think that we Christians must tread lightly in politics. The government is not the church. I may sound sectarian, but identity is found in scripture and not the Constitution.

  16. Tripp:

    You mistake me a bit, so let me try to be more clear.

    I am not suggesting that a particular politician is only beholden to those who put him in office and no one else. Given our secret ballot system, a politician can never know for certain who are his voting supporters.

    But it is the case–and this is the status quo in politics–that a politician heeds the interests of the majority of those who elected him, since if he fails to satisfy their civic demands, they can end his job upon the completion of his term (as, it seems by many accounts, the voters in N. Carolina were intending to do to Sen. Edwards).

    Now there is the dismal reality that most of the country is represented by persons elected by only a small active minority of registered voters. So, when it comes down to majority interests, it would be more correct to say, the majority of those voters who voted. And in this case, an elected person could be elected by a decided, if active and interested, minority. But that’s the nature of the beast.

    This is why successful campaigns today are not so much successful in selling their platform (as was more the case with Reagan), but are successful in mobilizing the vote. Dean, to the degree he had a viable platform, lost, not because he could not persuade voters to his case, but because he could not mobilize those so persuaded to turn out in enough numbers to make him a viable candidate.

    And, as the accumulating wisdom seems to be admitting, this is precisely why Kerry chose Edwards–experience red herrings aside–he is one damn fine campaigner . . . er, well, except for his own reelection.

  17. Huw:

    I think I can safely speak for Father Patrick in denying that he in any way intends politics to do those sorts of things that faith and theosis accomplish. Neither he, nor I, believe that politics can accomplish anyone’s salvation.

    And, you are completely correct, aside from what might otherwise be termed the normal duties of citizenship–awareness of pertinent local, state and national issues; communication with one’s representatives; casting one’s vote in appropriate elections; and prayer for one’s community, country and representative officials–you are right, I think, to note that for many people, politics is a distraction toward working out one’s salvation. One’s “extraordinary” involvement in politics is, I would argue, best discussed with one’s priest.

    That being said, I think there are two dangers, two extremes one may go to: to approach politics as one would one’s own religion–and for many secularists, politics is their religion (something Father Patrick has warned us about more than once)–and to assume the primary mode of response to social and moral ills is the political arena.

    Most conservative, evangelical and traditionalist Christians would hardly, it seems to me, replace their religious faith with a reliance on politics (though the rhetoric of some might call that assertion into question), but similarly, many of these same individuals speak as though we must solve social and moral ills through political activism.

    It is as wrong to seek first to advance God’s Kingdom through politics as to assume that one cannot advance God’s Kingdom in any way through politics.

    As with most things, it is a both/and. One must first pray. But that does not mean one is then free of any political/civic obligation.

  18. Firstly, peanuts have more intellectual fortitude than your average doctoral pickle. Then again, you may be a kiwi and I would then appear the fool. Have fun placating the masses.

    Secondly, you say, “I am not suggesting that a particular politician is only beholden to those who put him in office and no one else” And then you say, “that a politician heeds the interests of the majority of those who elected him, since if he fails to satisfy their civic demands, they can end his job upon the completion of his term.”

    Um, this might be an appropriate job description, but it is not accurate. Most (not all) politicians are criticised for not meeting the standards of those who elected them. Even W has people who voted for him now serving as critics. I wonder if the oath and the realities of office change stances as much as the realities of political wrangling do.

    Thirdly, you say “It is as wrong to seek first to advance God’s Kingdom through politics as to assume that one cannot advance God’s Kingdom in any way through politics.” This is the both/and that you suggest, and yet I wonder if the method of political involvement is something to question. We’ve played around in this before. I wonder if participating in the political system (to what degree? voting? running for office? dunno.) is dangerous for the Christian. It quickly becomes a distraction from salvation. We can quicly don the garments of the state and lose our ecclesial identity. It is a temptation. So, I suggest that the church learns to speak from the place of the church and not from a political bully pulpit. How this actually works, I am unsure. I don’t know where to draw the lines as yet.

    Finally, read upyernoz about Edwards’ experience. He has about as much as W did when he ran for President. Fun.

  19. Tripp:

    That politicians seem/are beholden more to one another and to political lobbying groups may well be a fact, but it’s also an indictment on us lazy bums who don’t communicate with our representatives and don’t vote.

    Also, admittedly, on a national level, our influence is much less than on the local and state level.

    I assert my position knowing quite well that any letter I may send to Dick or Janice is not likely to be considered very seriously, and even Peter may not take too much time over my concerns. But that doesn’t eliminate my right to work in the political arena for those things I think to be right. Nor, given the hair’s breadth difference in the last election, does it eliminate my hope that my one vote may make a marked difference.

  20. Oh, and I thought you might enjoy this, from WSJ’s Daniel Henninger:

    Another thing that is unfair to say but hard not to notice: This may be the most narcissistic ticket in 55 U.S. presidential elections. These two guys really radiate self-awareness.

    The oft-seen footage of the two emerging from a car after the VP announcement looked like a ZZ Top video for “Sharp Dressed Man.” John Kerry slides a hand down his already smooth tie and deftly buttons his suit jacket. John Edwards checks the flaps on his coat pockets. “Silk suit, black tie.” Both of their heads are rotating like satellite dishes scanning for signals. Light is ricocheting off porcelain in every direction. Come November, these two Power Rangers may have just worn out the electorate.

  21. Power Rangers?! Like it.

    You know, according to the people i know who are involved in politics, your letter means a lot. One letter reflects a large number of constituents. They take your letter seriously in that way. Maybe it is the only way. Send your letter. See what happens. You may get an autographed picture of a sharp dressed rep!

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