jump to navigation

Don’t exclude religion from table of public life (San Francisco Chronicle) August 18, 2002

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.

We live in a world in which the walls are coming down. Perhaps it started with President Reagan’s Berlin challenge: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Globalization, technology, travel and communication continue to destroy walls between nations and people. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan describes our time as a “world without walls.”

Ironically, while walls are tumbling around the world, here at home some are actually trying to expand a wall – the wall of separation between church and state.

News stories this summer document that, one brick here, another stone there, forces are actively working to expand that wall. Consider these recent developments:

* Michigan revoked a college student’s state scholarship when she declared “theology” as her major. Eleven states now have laws that would withhold aid to students who major in religion, and the U.S. Supreme Court will review the matter next term.

* At the Grand Canyon, three plaques containing spiritual messages were removed at the insistence of the American Civil Liberties Union and returned to the original donors, the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary.

* Fearing a weakening of the wall of separation between church and state, the Senate failed to pass President Bush’s faith-based legislative initiatives, so he moved ahead by executive order, allowing religious groups to receive government funding for social services.

It is important to note, however, that these efforts are based on a misunderstanding of the U.S. Constitution.

The so-called wall of separation between church and state is not referenced in the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson invented the wall in a letter to a Baptist association with which he was in conflict.

While saying nothing about a wall of separation, the Constitution does make two important statements about religion.

First, it guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from it. This recognizes the vital role religion played in the settling and establishing of our nation.

Second, the Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” In other words, religion is not to receive government endorsement.

That does not mean religion cannot have a seat at the table of public life, which the wall builders are advocating, but that it should not run the table.

If organizations are permitted to use public parks, for example, religious groups should not be excluded merely because they are religious.

If state scholarships are given for students to major in the classes or philosophy, they should also be available if students wish to study the academic discipline of theology.

The wall builders do not seek merely to prevent religion from running the table of public life; they would wall off religion so that it may not even have a seat at that table.

Thomas L. Friedman, in his classic book on globalization, “The Lexus and the Olive Tree,” notes that the symbol of the Cold War system was a wall, but “the symbol of the globalization system is the World Wide Web, which unites everyone.”

The table of American public life, like the Web, is big enough to include a place for everyone, even those who practice religion.

This op/ed appeared on Page B-7.

%d bloggers like this: