Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Does Christian Democracy Violate the Separation of Church and State?

A friend recently expressed to me concern that the American Solidarity Party (ASP), a party in the tradition of Christian Democracy, might violate the separation of church and state. It would be easy to dismiss this question out of hand. After all, the Constitution does not contain the phrase "separation of church and state". It simply requires that (a) Congress does not establish an official religion and (b) Congress does not interfere with the free exercise of religion.

One might point out that that ASP, as a tiny party, is far from the halls of power. Even if ASP took major offices, I am aware of no religious community represented by ASP members that would demand strict adherence to particular policies. Most churches articulate principles and leave their application to the judgement of individual members and office-holders. Even if the leaders of one church tried to exercise undue influence on the political process via ASP members, surely members of the party from other faiths would object.

ASP sometimes expresses its positions in Christian terms because many of its members are Christian. But this doesn't mean that ASP does not welcome people of all faiths, or that its positions only make sense if you are a Christian. Indeed, people of many faiths, and even no faith at all, have articulated many of the same policy positions.

But at its heart, the question about church and state is about the role of religion in the public square. It is a topic of profound importance, one definitely worth addressing.

In Defense of Religious Pluralism

I am a Catholic and have attended worship in the Church's various traditions: Roman, Greek, and Maronite. But I've also attended services in other churches: Episcopalian, Methodist, Evangelical, Mormon. Not so long ago I attended Friday prayers with a friend at her mosque.

Last year I had the chance to visit the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, popularly known as The Punchbowl, in Hawaii. It is home to thousands of war dead from World War II. Many of them are Japanese Americans from the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated unit in American military history. And as you walk along their tombstones, you notice something interesting: a great many, perhaps most, of them do not have a cross on top, but a Buddhist prayer wheel.

Our nation was founded by people of various faiths: Protestants from high church Anglicans to dissenting Quakers and everything in between. There were a few of Catholics and Jews and more than a few deists of various kinds. The Founders crafted a Constitution which neither enshrines a single faith as the official religion, nor bans religion from public view. They wanted a vigorous public discussion between many faiths.

I do not, as a matter of theology, believe that all religions are equal or correct. But I respect the dignity of all people, including their religious beliefs, and I recognize that, as a matter of public policy, our country is made stronger when people of faith share and act upon their values.

Some people fear an undue influence by Christianity or a particular Christian denomination over our national politics. There has indeed been a sad history of religious oppress oppression and violence across the centuries; I'll not say such fears are unfounded. But the answer is not to banish religious voices. On the contrary, I welcome more of them. I would love to see a member of Congress introduce legislation by explaining that the policies it contains are supported by the principles found in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Quran. I would love to see an Indian American run for office and explain how his or her Hindu faith inspired public service. And I would love to see Christians campaign for the values of the Gospel.

America needs religion.  But, to quote T. S. Elliot, "There is no competition— / There is only the fight to recover what has been lost / And found and lost again and again... / For us, there is only the trying."

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