06/04/2013 03:04 pm ET Updated Aug 04, 2013

Why Separate Church and State?

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One of the joys of being an editor at State of Formation is that I get to read raw, personal reflections from emerging religious and ethical leaders as part of my job. One of the more thought-provoking pieces for me, personally, in recent weeks was this piece on basing our political opinions on our religious convictions.

The author makes an extremely important point that is not often raised, namely that many liberals, in the U.S. and elsewhere, seem to apply a double-standard when it comes to the separation of church (or synagogue) and state. On the one hand, we express great displeasure when our Scripture is read in ways we do not agree with to support legislation we do not condone. On the other hand, many (if not most) of us do in fact rely on our own religious or ethical convictions to under-gird our political views.

My own experience of the issue under discussion in the State of Formation article helpfully illustrates this point. I think that those who oppose gay marriage by recourse to the Torah are fundamentally misguided, both on how to apply that text to life in the 21st century and on how to apply religion to the private lives of other citizens. However, I would argue that my own position on the issue finds perfect expression both in the term tzelem Elohim -- that each and every person was created in the image of God -- and in the concept of eilu v'eilu divrei Elohim chayim, the Talmudic concept (Eruvin 13b) that we must learn to live with a plurality of truths, as both are the "words of the living God."

It is a basic, knee-jerk reaction in the Western world to rail against any politician who seeks to justify a position of theirs by referencing their faith tradition. I wonder, however, how we have gotten away with perpetuating this misconception that somehow our religious traditions do not have anything constructive to contribute to our political realities. The Torah is, among other things, the first written code of Jewish law. Because Jews since then have striven to understand it in ways comprehensible to their time and place, it has maintained its relevance until this very day. As such, the Torah is abundantly relevant to our times, in all spheres of life. If this were not the case, I fail to see how sermons could ever apply to our lives as we live them, as opposed to simply being a closed textual analysis of an ancient piece of literature (even as both types of sermon have their place).

The separation of church and state is also in the news in Canada, particularly focusing on the issue of abortion. The recent death of Dr. Henry Morgentaler, the architect of the current abortion legislation in Canada, has prompted a review of the period and has shown that "since the Morgentaler decision in 1988, Christian and other faith groups have periodically tried to push their way into the public sphere but Canadians won't have it." Ironically, though, Canada does not have a doctrine of separation of church and state, at least not officially. It does however, pride itself on the same ethic, even if not enshrined in law like it is in the USA.

How can we re-frame the conversation about the supposed separation of church and state, appealing to the vast majority of the population of this, or any other country, that our ethical convictions, based on religion or not, fuel our political positions? This is not to reduce all ethics to religion, but rather to acknowledge that our ideal, hoped-for policies are rooted in deeply held principles about the nature of life on our planet, and what constitutes a good life. These are questions that philosophers and theologians have grappled with for millennia, and to imagine that these can be shoved aside so that, to all appearances, politicians are strict rationalists, is to completely negate the power religious and other ethical systems have to transform our lives for the better.