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2012 Archives

TEXAS FAITH: Is separation of church and state an idea to keep religious people out of the public arena?


The following ran in the Sept. 25, 2012, edition of the Dallas Morning News Texas Faith blog. Theology professor William Lawrence provided expertise for this story.

September 27, 2012

By Wayne Slater

In a conference call with Christian conservatives, Gov. Rick Perry dismissed the separation of church and state as an idea advanced to drive “people of faith from the public arena.” The governor went on to say Satan is using it to keep Christians from actively engaging in public policy. “The idea that we should be sent to the sidelines I would suggest to you is very driven by those who are not truthful, Satan runs across the world with his doubt and with his untruths and what have you, and one of the untruths out there is driven – is that people of faith should not be involved in the public arena.”
The governor’s take on theology and American history got mixed reviews – at best – from our Texas Faith panel of pastors, teachers, theologians, lay leaders and religious experts. The recent conference call was an effort to motivate conservative Christians to vote their values in November. Perry used language familiar to social conservatives – “spiritual warfare” and “Christian soldiers” and a growing tide of “secularism and atheism” – in warning of those making “efforts to remove any trace of religion from American life.”
The premise of the governor’s comments is that separation of church and state is sometimes invoked simply to discourage people (read it: people whose ideas you don’t like) from getting involved in politics and public policy. Is that true? And, perhaps more to the point, how do we make sure that doesn’t happen? In our political debate this election season, what’s the proper balance between warning against theocracy and encouraging faith in the public square? The Texas Faith panel had some ideas.
WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University
Occasionally our elected officials embarrass themselves in public. An “inelegant” statement can do it, as one of the Presidential candidates has acknowledged in attempting to explain his words at a fund-raising event. Far worse, however, are the occasions like this one when a governor who is also an aspirant for the Presidency demonstrates his indifference to the Constitution of the United States and to the facts of American history.
First, the principle that is generally called “separation of church and state” is not a demonic instrument but a treasured right that is listed in the Constitution as first among the Bill of Rights. Second, those who founded our Republic (Adams, Jefferson, and Madison to name three) knew the dangers of comingling religious institutions with institutions of the state and they wisely built a wall of separation between the two. Third, religious institutions have not been prohibited from exercising a voice in the public square. Any elected official who does not know about the importance of religious institutions in the Civil Rights movement, for example, should forego any aspirations for an elected office and return to school for some basic and advanced courses in American history. Fourth, constituencies like the one to whom the governor spoke seem to think there is a political advantage in promoting the big deception that he advocated. They do not want to encourage religious discussions in the public arena but dominate them and dictate the outcome of the conversation.
Religious groups have certainly been active in the public arena on the issue of abortion. And their voices have been heard on all sides of the debate. Some of those voices would like to drown all others by insisting that there is only one Christian position on abortion. But that is patently false. There are varying Christian points of view on the topic.
The governor has embarrassed himself again. This time he did it by showing his religious and constitutional ignorance....