Public Policy and the “Separation of Church and State”? A Way Forward.

Public Policy and the “Separation of Church and State”? A Way Forward.

This is a thorny issue. On the one side are people who argue for a complete separation of church and state (the secular position). On the other side, many religious people claim that their Scriptures clearly distinguish right from wrong and that public laws should replicate this (the theocracy position). In my (not so humble) opinion, both sides have overstated their case. This is a tough issue, but there is a way forward.

People on the secular side argue for a complete “separation of church and state”. This phrase was enunciated by Thomas Jefferson, but it does not appear in the U.S. Constitution. Some from the secular position seem to have forgotten that many of the important laws in modern, secular societies (that they do agree with) had their origin in Scripture. Laws against murder, theft, and perjury historically came from the Ten Commandments. These usually came about via church/state alliances but have been reaffirmed by citizens in pluralistic societies today. On the other hand, other laws which were religiously motivated (example: the “dry laws” that prohibited sales of alcohol in the Bible Belt South or the “Blue laws” that prohibited supermarkets from opening on Sundays) have generally been dropped across the country.

People on the theocracy side believe that they know God’s will for society, based on their interpretation of their Scriptures and that should be applied to all (like the prohibition of murder). A contemporary example of this is the pro-life position of many religious people in which they affirm that the fetus’s life should be defended as of conception. Many pro-lifers had opposed the Roe v. Wade decision because it was made by members of the Supreme Court in 1973 and not by elected officials. Although Roe v. Wade has now been overturned federally, the legality of abortions is being decided at the state level.

Problems with both extreme positions should motivate us to a third way. Our Constitution guarantees the freedom to all people to choose their own religion…or no religion at all. I might not agree with their choices, but I defend their freedom to choose. Their religious choices probably influence them on a wide array of issues, including public policies. That is fine and appropriate. Freedom of conscience means that people can arrive at their opinions in the way that they prefer. Nevertheless, if they want to codify their opinions into law, there is the next step which is quite difficult. In democracies, they must persuade a majority of their fellow citizens of the appropriateness of their policies (at a district, state, or national level).

This challenge can be seen in what happened in Kansas. With Roe v Wade being overturned, people in Kansas voted on the legality/illegality of abortions in their state. Although Kansas is a “ruby red” state which traditionally votes Republican, 59% voted to keep abortions legal. The pro-lifers failed to persuade a majority of Kansas inhabitants of the “rightness” of their position. Their position would be made stronger if they supported policies that would help pay maternity costs or provide child care or other programs that would be consistently “pro-life”.

What is the third way? People have the right to acquire their personal opinions in the way they prefer. But to codify these opinions into laws, they need to persuade a majority of their neighbors about the “justness” of their positions. They are free to use religious arguments, although non/religious arguments might be better. Democracy is messy. Sometimes your positions win, sometimes they don’t. That is why freedom of speech and elections are important.