In “Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft,” Francis J. Beckwith attempts to answer questions that Christians have regarding the role of religious beliefs in the public square. In his third chapter, Beckwith presents a historical background to the slogan “separation of church and state,” describing how it has evolved from its original intention to mean religious ideas should stay out of public policy. He argues, rightly in my opinion, that this evolution is misguided.
The United States Constitution only addresses religion in two places. First, in Article VI on the prohibition of a religious test for holding federal office. Second, in the First Amendment; most are familiar with the free-exercise clause, but fail to properly consider the implications of the establishment clause. Beckwith writes, “The text clearly indicates, however, that the First Amendment was intended to limit the law-making power of Congress and not any other branch of the state or federal governments.” But, the Supreme Court began to involve itself through its doctrine of selective incorporation—the application of the Bill of Rights to states and localities. This led to increased federal government’s involvement with state and local issues that not before been seen. And this is why Americans think of their rights in relationship to the federal government, subsisting through state and local governments.
The slogan “separation of church and state” first appears in a letter from President Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury, CT Baptists. The note was not any part of legislation or an executive order, but merely a letter in response to a query. The Baptists maintained that there were distinct spheres for church and state. The church’s role was to shape the moral understanding of people, whereas the state’s role was to protect people’s God-given rights. Beckwith points out that the state of Connecticut’s established religion, Congregationalism, was favored legislatively (a tax was in place to financially support it). That, and other persecution, led the Baptists to complain to Jefferson.
How Government Can Support Religion
Ultimately, using this phrase to support a stark divide between church and state is futile. Rather, the proper understanding is that:
courts may affirm the constitutionality of laws that are tied to religious understandings but are nevertheless not “state establishments.” That is, a government within the United States may pass laws that provide public approval and sustenance to moral understandings that are consistent with, congenial to or have their grounding in certain religious traditions but, nevertheless, are thought by some citizens to advance the public good.
In a nutshell: governments can pass laws that are related to religion or have their truthfulness in religious traditions without the government creating a state establishment. Beckwith provides the example of pro-life legislation on the abortion issue. Sophisticated pro-life advocates argue based on the nature of the unborn as human—holding that the unborn have rights. Even though the truthfulness of this position might be grounded in metaphysical beliefs about God being the conferrer of rights, the government still has a duty to protect the right to life.
Is there a limit to religious freedom? Many laws provide religious exemptions to their mandates. And yet, the tide seems to be turning against freedom of conscience, especially as it pertains to forcing religious organizations to provide birth control coverage for their employees. Beckwith notes that the Founders were wise to understand that freedom of religion could be taken too far. This is one reason why state constitutions could be their own laboratories of democracy, allowing the people of each state to decide what was and was not for the common good under the premise of religion. Christians—and others—who support a liberal democracy should be aware that the same liberties they wish to enjoy are perhaps the same liberties non-Christians wish to enjoy as well.