We the People
France Griggs Sloat
In 1802, Thomas Jefferson penned a letter to the Danbury Baptists in which he used the phrase “separation of church and state” to describe the intent of the religion clauses of the First Amendment. Nowhere does the phrase appear in the Constitution itself, but Jefferson chose to call it a “wall” of separation to indicate the solid conviction of the Founding Fathers who had come to America to escape religious suppression and seek religious freedom. The horrors of their history would happen no more, not in America, where government would guarantee people basic freedoms to live their lives, raise their families and practice their faiths.
Advocates of separation argue there is a clear distinction between the two institutions and never should they mix. Opponents argue that government should accommodate certain elements of religion as long as it doesn’t act to endorse a particular one.
In some ways, the government already accommodates religion. The words “In God We Trust” are on our currency. Religious artwork adorns government buildings, including the United States Supreme Court itself. We pledge allegiance as one nation “under God.” But recently, the two views have been slamming into each other. Consider the influence of faith-based groups in the recent presidential election, the death of Terri Schiavo and the ongoing debate about the selection of the next Supreme Court justices.
Who’s right? How far will it go? As a means of continuing education, we asked several Xavier faculty: Should they mix? Should religion have a role in government or public policy? What limitations, if any, should be imposed? At what point does it cross the line of the First Amendment ban on the establishment of a state religion?
Here we talk to Thomas Kennealy, S.J. You can find links to other profiles at the bottom of the page.
Thomas Kennealy, S.J. Associate Dean, Colleges of Social Sciences and Arts and Sciences
Religion has a very significant role to play in the formation of public policy. Religion should act as a moral voice in society to bring to issues of the day a spiritual, religious, moral and ethical point of view that’s extremely valuable, not to say essential. People of strong religious convictions really feel those convictions play a very big part in the formation of their opinions, attitudes and point of view. That’s probably where the tension is coming from today between what author Steven Carter calls the secular point of view and the opinion of those people particularly in the evangelical movement for whom religion is extremely important and whose values are derived to a significant degree from their religious views.
I feel strongly that religion does have a role as a point of view that makes a significant contribution in the formation of public policy, because the issues are often moral and do have religious and spiritual context.
I think the church can bring something valuable to the discussion. This was the view of certain Founding Fathers. John Adams felt that religion and religious people do have something to contribute to the public debate, and the church itself has to be a part of the discussion because it will help us balance other things by bringing what is the moral voice of the church to bear.
There are some safeguards. The First Amendment of the Constitution says that government should not have a state-sponsored church. I think it’s very wise because it is appropriate for the church to go about its business and the state to go about its business. In the case of an established church, you would be favoring one church over all the others, which would be an unworkable scheme in the United States.
But I do think in a society such as ours, there has to be practiced by everybody a whole degree of tolerance. Our democratic system works only to the extent that people of religion or no religion are respectful of one another and their point of view and particularly of other people’s consciences. I think it’s important the churches avoid what I would call party politics. It’s not good for churches to support a political party or candidate because it’s moving away from discussions of issues and moving toward personalities and specific candidates. I think the church’s role is to help formulate good policy that is moral and ethical, and it should stick to that.