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Netroots Nation Confronts Church and State

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Last week, at the Netroots Nation Convention in Pittsburgh, a panel debated a proposal concerning the future of the separation of church and state in America. The proposal was entitled, A New Progressive Vision for Church and State: How I Learned to Accept "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance and Stop Losing Elections. (Scroll down to watch video) The substance of the proposal was set forth as follows:

"The old liberal vision of a total separation of religion from politics has been discredited. Despite growing secularization, a secular progressive majority is still impossible, and a new two-part approach is needed--one that first admits that there is no political wall of separation. Voters must be allowed, without criticism, to propose policies based on religious belief. But, when government speaks and acts, messages must be universal. The burden is on religious believers, therefore, to explain public references like 'under God' in universal terms. For example, the word 'God' can refer to the ceaseless creativity of the universe and the objective validity of human rights. Promoting and accepting religious images as universal will help heal culture-war divisions and promote the formation of a broad-based progressive coalition."

This proposal arose out of my work on the issue of church and state. My recent book, Hallowed Secularism, envisions an expanding secular movement that is open to the wisdom and power of religion. This proposal represents the constitutional law side of that vision.

Knowing that this proposal would be controversial, the panel was selected to provide a spectrum of opinion. The moderator of the panel was Chuck Freeman, known to many on the religious left as the host of Soul Talk Radio. I presented the proposal to be debated, which was then responded to by Rev. Janet Edwards, Fred Clarkson and Vic Walczak. Edwards is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, who faced charges last year because she presided at the wedding of two women. Clarkson is the author of Dispatches from the Religious Left and has been an influential independent journalist for many years. Walczak is Legal Director of ACLU-PA and was one of three lawyers who successfully tried Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, the first case challenging the teaching in public schools of "intelligent design", which a federal judge concluded was simply creationism repackaged.

I won't try to summarize the panel presentations and the audience reaction. I hope readers will look at the video. I will say that the overwhelming vote in the House of Representatives on July 11 for H.Con.Res. 131 directing the Architect of the Capitol to engrave the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Motto "In God We Trust" in the Capitol Visitor Center (410-8) suggests that something has to give. Either we start prohibiting government from endorsing obviously religious references in the public square or we accept these religious images along the lines of a reinterpreted Establishment Clause.

Justice Antonin Scalia has proposed one such new understanding -- that monotheism be accepted as a kind of generic American religion permissible under the Establishment Clause. Scalia is willing to disregard -- his term -- not only nonbelievers but also Buddhist and Hindu believers. This divisive proposal has not been embraced by a majority of the Justices.

I am proposing instead that the principle of government neutrality toward religion be retained but that certain religious symbols under certain circumstances be regarded as encompassing both religious and nonreligious messages. As long as government plausibly justifies religious imagery in nonreligious terms, its use would be constitutional. For example, the phrase in 'God We Trust' means the biblical creator to many religious believers. But it can also mean that we acknowledge that there are binding standards of right and wrong, such as the anti-torture principle, to which America is subject.

One advantage of my proposal is that it speaks of current meaning. The supporters of Resolution 131 couched their arguments in terms of America's religious heritage. But they were not actually referring to history. They really wish to assert that we trust in God today and that we ought to trust in God. And if the word "God" were as small as they think it is, the national motto would be unconstitutional. But since God has much broader meaning than any merely sectarian use, the presence of this word in the public square can be justified even under the principle of government religious neutrality.

Sixty years after the Supreme Court first promised religious neutrality by the government in Everson v. Board of Education, the American people still cling, as President Barack Obama once put it, to religious imagery in the public square. Fighting against that imagery has only helped the religious right. It is time to give up on the principle of the purely secular state and try to find common ground between secularists and religious believers.