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Rev. Emily C. Heath

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Separation of Church and Santorum

Posted: 03/ 1/2012 10:58 am

"I don't believe in an America where the separation of church and state are absolute. The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country. ... To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up." --Rick Santorum

Rich Santorum's quote about Pres. John F. Kennedy's speech on the separation of church and state has received a tremendous amount of airplay this week. Even if you remove that last viral line, it's a strong pronouncement of Santorum's displeasure with the limits imposed on religious institutions in the public arena. It's enough to make the ears of any person of faith who thinks differently than Santorum perk up.

Speaking as a pastor in a mainline Christian denomination (you know, one of the ones Santorum says is in "shambles") I'm surprised to find myself in some agreement with one part of his quote. I also believe that it is "antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country ... to say that people of faith have no role in the public square." And yet, I would suspect Santorum and I have very different ideas of what that means.

I agree that people of faith do have a role in the public discourse. When I stand in front of the ballot in November, I make my decisions about which levers to pull in light of what I believe my faith tells me. It's a responsibility that I take seriously, and it's one that my own church has taken seriously for centuries.

When John Calvin wrote 500 years ago that the greatest calling one can have is not to the ministry, but to public service, he was clear that Christians are called to live out their faith in the public arena. But even before then, there was Jesus, who had a few ideas about how to live together too. Ideas like love your neighbor as yourself, and "you are my friends if you love one another." They are ideas that cannot be thrown out easily.

And yet, they often are, particularly by those who claim Christian faith compels their policy decisions. I am often stunned by interpretations of the Christian faith that are strangely literal about the oft-conflicting biblical words in black, yet oddly silent about the very clear words in red. They seem so antithetical to what I believe Christian faith to be about, and they certainly do not speak for me or many of my colleagues.

But that's the beauty of religious freedom in this country. My understanding of Christianity is not forced onto other Christians, nor upon people of other faiths or no faith at all. One belief system is not given precedence over the others, and the religious liberties of the minority groups are not infringed upon by the will of the majority.

That's something that protects us all, including our churches. Take the debate over equal marriage, for instance. I pastor in a denomination that allows religious marriage for same-sex couples. I'm thankful that the government cannot dictate that I am not allowed to perform this religious ceremony. True, they can determine whether or not that marriage will have legal standing, but in the end they cannot infringe upon my religious right to pray as I see fit. I'm thankful for that, and for a system of government that, unlike Santorum, understands that "church" means different things to different believers.

Likewise, should a state or any other jurisdiction allow equal marriage, religious institutions cannot be compelled to allow them against their beliefs, just like they cannot be compelled to ordain women or allow second marriages. In all the talk of "religious liberty" around this issue, the fact is often lost that clergy cannot be compelled to marry anyone they do not want to marry. As a clergy member I have declined to marry couples before, and each time I have had absolute legal protection to do so. The same is true of the priest in New York or the rabbi and Massachusetts who decide not to marry a same-sex couple.

But in addition to protecting religious institutions from government intervention, separation of church and state when correctly applied also makes sure that the religious beliefs of one group cannot infringe on the rights of another. It's not really religious liberty if it intrudes on the religious liberty of others. Likewise, if public policy on a specific issue does not reflect your particular religious belief you are not being persecuted or told you cannot hold your beliefs. It just means that the majority of society disagrees with the idea that your particular religious beliefs on that issue should be imposed upon everyone else.

You might find those two men getting a marriage license at town hall to be antithetical to everything you believe, but they are not infringing on your rights. You might not like it that a young woman has access to birth control, but you don't get to keep it from her because you'd rather she not have it. Instead, you have the religious liberty to make those choices for yourself and your own religious community. So if you don't believe in equal marriage or family planning, don't marry someone of your same-sex, and don't take birth control pills. If you want, work within your own religious community encouraging others to make the same choices you did. But don't try to take legal rights away from others.

So getting back to what Santorum said, should people of faith have a role in the public square? Yes. In fact, they already do. Because people of all faiths are citizens of this country, and we are already involved. We vote. We serve. We live as neighbors. We try to discern how to make our communities better for all who live there, no matter who we are. And ideally, we do that by bringing the best parts of what our faith has taught us.

For those of us who are Christian, I believe that means acting a lot more like Christ, and advocating for the social policies that will help us to do those things. Things like loving our neighbors. Working for justice. Resisting violence. Cultivating forgiveness. Remembering the poor. Seeing each person as a reflection of the divine Creator. And standing for the oppressed.

You may think I'm theologically wrong. And I may think you are too. But that's the beauty of this country. Because if separation of church and state really exists, at the end of the day neither one of our faiths should be afforded greater legitimacy under the law.

 

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