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FIRST-PERSON: Faith’s role in the public square

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–What is the role of religion in the public square? Some would call for a Christian theocracy. Others would suggest a completely religion-free public square.

But are these the only options? Either a public square dominated by religion? Or, a public square devoid of spiritual import? These questions are important, especially when it appears that Christianity is on the defensive in favor of a secularized public square. To answer this question we must revisit some American history.

In a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut dated Jan. 1, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson opined on the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment, arguing for “building a wall of separation between Church and State.” Jefferson, a deist at best, was responding to an inquiry concerning his view of state-sanctioned churches. Non-conformists were concerned that those who favored a state church would win the day and exclude all other expressions of religious conviction. He was also responding to his critics as to why he did not follow the pattern of his predecessors, Washington and Adams, in declaring national days of prayer, fasting and worship.

Jefferson’s “wall of separation” was used to assure the Baptists that he opposed a state-sanctioned church, arguing that “religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only and not opinions.” The phrase was used by Chief Justice Morrison Waite in 1879 and again by Justice Hugo Black in 1947. Thus, the phrase “wall of separation” settled into the American conscience.

What are we to make of this phrase?

First, though helpful, the phrase is not in the Constitution. The First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” At minimum, this means two things. The state will not establish a state church and the state will not interfere with religious practices.

Second, some argue that this phrase excludes all religious expressions from the public square. But does it? Jefferson argued that the First Amendment guaranteed freedom for religion as a moral dimension of a democratically governed people. He also argued for the freedom of religion in that each person was free to worship or not worship according to the dictates of his own conscience. Further, Jefferson, I believe, argued that the “wall of separation” was more for the protection of the church than the state. This is why Jefferson was not arguing for freedom from religion in the public square.

America is a constitutional, representative republic. A Christian theocracy is not an option any more than would be a state run by Mormons, Muslims or Buddhists. While there is freedom for and of religion, it must be acknowledged that though America’s founding documents are not explicitly Christian, the founding spirit of this nation was consistently Judeo-Christian. It has been the favored religion of this nation, which is no small admission. This does not exclude expressions of religious convictions by non-Christians. It simply acknowledges that the Judeo-Christian worldview has been firmly ensconced in American public life, which has served us well since our inception.

Therefore, to answer the question, “What is the role of religion in the public square?” is to ask the question, “Can I separate my private convictions from my public opinions?” Since my answer to the latter is no, my answer to the former is that I come to the community table as a convictional Christian. It is there in community meetings and in public gatherings that I express my religiously informed convictions with clarity, conciseness and humility, as would any citizen of any religious stripe. To do otherwise would violate my conscience. I cannot check who I am at the door of public involvement.

To quarantine the public square from religious conviction is to leave her bare, devoid of any moral and spiritual influence. Such a move would supplant America’s spiritual and moral roots, a development that would in the end neutralize moral conviction and rob us of our grand, constitutional and declared affirmations: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness … and for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”
Kevin Shrum is pastor of Inglewood Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn.

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  • Kevin Shrum