Acton Institute Powerblog

We can separate church and state, but not religion and politics

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All our politics is religious, says Jonathan Leeman.

“Neutrality is a bluff, he adds, “We are all sectarians (and conversations in the public square will become more honest when everyone names their ‘sect’). . . . Whoever gets to define which issues are ‘religious’ gets to rigs the game.”

Should we therefore conclude that the the U. S. Constitution’s “no religious test for public office” clause is nothing more than an ideological power play? “Not at all,” says Leeman:

In another Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, Senator Richard Durban asked Judge William Pryor whether he was “asserting an agenda of [his] own, a religious belief of [his] own, inconsistent with separation of church and state.” Here the senator conflated the separation of religion and politics with the separation of church and state. In my mind, we cannot separate religion and politics; but we must separate church and state. The former speaks to phenomenology, the latter to institutional authority and jurisdiction.

No, Donald Trump should not possess the authority to declare the doctrines of my faith, or to determine suitable candidates for baptism in my church. Nor do I, as an elder of my church, possess coercive authority to bind members and non-members alike according to our book, the Bible.

The separation of church and state, in other words, should not be construed as pertaining to our beliefs or the origin of our beliefs. It pertains to our status as a member of any religious group, church, house of worship, cult, movement, or hockey team. It pertains to institutional affiliation and authority. The First Amendment captures this nuance wonderfully. It doesn’t say “Congress shall make no law establishing religion.” Every law, even a law against murder, establishes someone’s religion. Rather, it judiciously says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” That is, Congress possesses no authority to identify, organize, and define a set of religious doctrines and their adherents. Which, inversely, means no particular church or religious group should seek to establish itself as a church or as a group among the general population of a nation. Nor should they seek to wield the sword over a nation.

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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