For the second time in recent days, I've found myself on the side of a debate that I'm very rarely on. I'm an Establishment Clause stickler. But I'm also a fan of freedom of religion. And while I'm opposed to excessive entanglement of religion and government, I think religion should be in our public sphere.
I have found myself busting out the argument that I generally hear coming out of the mouths of right-wingers. "The 'separation of church and state' isn't in the constitution anyway." And it's true.
Today I got into a discussion with several people about what churches should be allowed to do in the way of politics. I think churches should be able to do a lot: hold meetings, talk about political issues, drive people to the polls. Many of the people I talked to disagreed. They said that churches should be able to talk about "moral" issues that might be political issues as well, but that's about it.
First off, I think all moral issues are political issues. How can you separate them? Is it too political for a preacher to preach about racial equality? How about during desegregation? Was it too political then? Were black churches and clergy going over the line when they were organizing people and leaders during the Civil Rights Movement?
I do draw the line at endorsing candidates or telling people how they should vote on a particular issue on the ballot. But that's not a separation of church and state issue, that's a tax-exempt, non-profit issue. I don't think the United Way or the Girls' Club should be able to endorse candidates either. I don't think that, from a first amendment standpoint, there's any limit on the politicking that a church can be involved in. (Except, of course, the tax-exempt limit.)
I think that religion should absolutely be involved in the public square. I don't think it's a problem that churches drive people to the polls... I think it's important that they do. Churches (of all types) are an important part of American civil society. They are a basis for social organization and shared beliefs and values.
I realize that when I say this, I'm arguing for the active engagement of, many times, homophobic and intolerant groups. I sure am! I don't care that churches preach against gay marriage. Because there are just as many out there who are preaching for equality. I believe free speech is answerable by more free speech. I don't mind that those same anti-gay churches are busing their members to the polls to vote. Because I think greater civic engagement in general will lead to more justice in the end.
Preachers used to preach in support of segregation. They eventually lost the battle of ideas. They used to preach against racial intermarriage. They used to preach against gay marriage. Good ideas will always prevail. I believe that religion should be an active participant in that national dialogue. Yes, even in our political dialogue.
I think part of the problem of politics today is that we've associated religion with "moral" issues and separated those completely from "political" issues. Thus, we see reports that the "values voters" carried George W. Bush to victory. I did not vote for Bush. Did I not vote my values? Is justice not a value? Equality? To hear these people talk, abortion and gay marriage are the only positions on which one can take a "moral" position.
I always dismissed the claim made by many on the right that people on the left are too secular and combative towards religion. But, it really does seem that there may be some truth in that. I'm not saying that people on the left need to find religion, but I do think they need to open their minds to the progressive possibilities inherent in religion. Religion has always guided us on to the greater good when it has been a part of our national conversation. When we allow the right to have a monopoly on "values" and "morals," we undercut the importance and power of our moral and value judgments.