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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Politics of Jesus & Religious Liberty

My friend (gosh I sound like McCain) Nathan Finn, a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, spoke last week at First Baptist Church of Durham, North Carolina at The Politics of Jesus conference. The conference was sponsored by the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. Finn's lecture was titled "The Pulpit and the Public Square: Some Observations from the Ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon."

You can read Finn's lecture here. Here's a snippet:
Now by assuming we all agree in principle to the separation of church and state, I am under no illusion that we would all agree as to the application of this concept. Some might even object to the language of church-state separation because of the way that various anti-faith agendas have co-opted the phrase and used it to undermine traditional values that many of us hold dear....The fact is American evangelicals have never marched in lock-step when it comes to applying the First Amendment, perhaps because there has never been one single understanding of what church-state separation actually means. At least two major views have been articulated by evangelicals, both of which have been ably defended by some Baptists. Some evangelicals argue for what might be called an accomodationist understanding of church-state separation. Most accomodationists argue that the government should accomodate religious beliefs and practices, provided that it does not show favoritism to a particular sect or belief. Isaac Backus is the most famous Baptist proponent of this view. Accomodationists tend to argue that the Constitution is positive in its assessment of religion and that the primary concern of the First Amendment is to guard against a state-established church. We might say that contemporary accomodationists tend to read the “non-establishment” clause of the First Amendment through the lens of the “free-exercise” clause. Though I confess that I cannot offer any quantifiable evidence, it appears to me that the majority of present-day politically engaged evangelicals tend toward an accomodationist understanding of church-state separation.[v]
Finn begins by stating his assumption that all of the Southern Baptists in the room "agree in principle to the separation of church and state" noting that not everyone in the room would agree "as to the application of this concept." I'm glad that a modern-day Southern Baptist is still willing to use the phrase. Finn states that "American evangelicals have never marched in lock-step when it comes to applying the First Amendment, perhaps because there has never been one single understanding of what church-state separation actually means." This is very true. Church-State expert Douglas Laycock has written at least a few articles on the "Many Meanings of Separation." Finn continues:
At least two major views have been articulated by evangelicals, both of which have been ably defended by some Baptists. Some evangelicals argue for what might be called an accomodationist understanding of church-state separation. Most accomodationists argue that the government should accomodate religious beliefs and practices, provided that it does not show favoritism to a particular sect or belief. Isaac Backus is the most famous Baptist proponent of this view. Accomodationists tend to argue that the Constitution is positive in its assessment of religion and that the primary concern of the First Amendment is to guard against a state-established church. We might say that contemporary accomodationists tend to read the “non-establishment” clause of the First Amendment through the lens of the “free-exercise” clause. Though I confess that I cannot offer any quantifiable evidence, it appears to me that the majority of present-day politically engaged evangelicals tend toward an accomodationist understanding of church-state separation.

Despite the present popularity of the accomodationist approach, there have always been some evangelicals who have argued for what might be called a strict separationist understanding of church-state relations. Most strict separationists argue that the government should be completely neutral concerning religious beliefs and practices, neither supporting nor harming any particular sect or belief.
The problem here is that so-called "accommodationists" are a mixed-bunch. There is DEFINITELY more than one "type" Accommodationist especially in the evangelical world. Further, Finn's definition of the "Accommodationist" position is EXTREMELY vague. Separationists such as myself also believe that government should accommodate religious beliefs and practices as long as the state remains neutral. Most separationists especially in Baptist life have consistently been advocates of policies such as the Equal Access Act which accommodate the religious beliefs and practices of students in the public school system. In light of Antonin Scalia's screwy decision in Oregon v. Smith, Baptist separationists supported the Religious Freedom Restoraction Act (alongside those from all corners of the political spectrum) as a means of accommodating the religious beliefs and practices of those who belonging to a minority sect.

Secondly, the popular view opposite of "Accommodationism" (which is a category that seems to be rarely used these days in church-state scholarship) is not "Strict Separationism." Again, there are many meanings of "separation." Carl Esbeck's often cited typology of church-state relations claims that there are 5 views: Strict Separationism, Pluralistic Separationism, Institutional Separationism, Nonpreferentialism and Restorationism. Oddly, Finn cites Esbeck's popular typology in a footnote by fails to utilize that typology in his lecture. Instead, he focuses on the so-called "strict separationist understanding of church-state relations." Many Baptists believe that "the government should be completely neutral concerning religious beliefs and practice, neither supporting nor harming any particular sect or belief." Few are "strict separationists." This is a weak and incomplete definition of "strict separationism." Seriously, what prominent Baptists or Baptist organizations could honestly wear this "strict separationist" label?

Esbeck, who Finn cites, describes strict separationists as wanting not only a separation of church and state but also a separation of religion from public life. Thus who are these "many evangelicals" who hold to strict separationism. In Baptist life, I am not aware of any groups or individuals (maybe one or two) who advocate a separation of religion and politics or religion from public life. Baptist religious liberty advocates like James Dunn repeatedly said during the 70s, 80s, and 90s that religion and politics will mix, should mix and must mix. Dunn's view as articulated above has been the prevailing view among Baptist separationists in recent decades.

Later in the lecture, Finn opines:
In my opinion it is a great tragedy that over the past couple of generations a good many evangelicals, including many of my fellow Baptists, have advocated positions that are closer to the People for the American Way or the ACLU than the framers of the Constitution, all in the name of preserving religious liberty. These misguided evangelicals have at times lent support to the anti-religion agenda, seemingly unaware (or at least unconcerned) that they are actually contributing to a climate that is poisoned against religious arguments and conservative moral convictions. One cannot help but think that a combination of party politics and poor education has much to do with evangelicals who attack religious freedom in the name of defending religious freedom.
Working alongside liberal advocacy organizations does not make one a liberal nor does it mean that a person's position is wrong. Richard Land has on more than a few occasions promoted policies through coalition work alongside liberals and secularists. That's how stuff gets done in Washington. After Scalia's atrocious decision in Oregon v. Smith, the Baptist Joint Committee led by Oliver Thomas put together an extremely diverse group of religious organizations to help pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. To pass this extremely important piece of religious freedom-protecting legislation, the Southern Baptist Convention joined hands with the ACLU and People for the American Way. A Tragedy Indeed! Actually, it was tragic that the Religious Right's darling Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Sclia, wrote the opinion which made RFRA necessary. Talk about a tragedy...

Speaking of the Framers of the Constitution, I'm pretty sure that the Chief Framer, James Madison, was a strong proponent of the concept of government neutrality toward religion and nonreligion - thus fitting Finn's vague definition of a "strict separationist."


13 Comments:

Anonymous KarenG said...

Limiting marriage to private institutions -- churches -- seems to be a strict separationist position.

6:03 PM

 
Blogger Big Daddy Weave said...

Why? What makes keeping government out of marriage a "strict separationist" position? Back in the 60s, folks said that those who supported the decisions which prohibited government sponsored prayer and bible devotion reads to be strict separationists. Today, folks like Richard Land affirm those decisions. Hardly a strict separationist.

Would you say that Douglas Laycock, who you described as one of your favorite professors, is a strict separationist? I don't think there is a strict separationist bone in his body.

9:11 PM

 
Anonymous Karen G said...

Prof. Laycock is an excellent professor, scholar and good guy willing to work with whomever is interested. I admire him but don't know enough to label his First Amendment philosophy (I took his remedies class).

Depending on the definition of strict separationist (there are several in the post), taking government out of marriage seems to have a secular result rather than a neutral one. It deems the institution of marriage wholly religious and on that basis makes it, in a sense, unavailable to the public. The publicly-available institution would be civil unions.

Currently states and the federal government deem it good public policy to support and enforce marriage through myriad laws (e.g., family, tax, employment), whether the marriage is religious, civil or common law in origin. This seems religion-neutral. Some states also support civil unions and domestic partnerships. Going the further step of taking government out of marriage seems a stricter application of the principle of church-state separation.

Maybe my comment mixed apples and oranges, though. "Strict separationist" applies to First Amendment tensions, whereas the constitutional argument for same-sex marriage is discrimination - the equal protection clause of the 14th Amdt.

And of course all this is legal argument rather than God's word on marriage. Having His concept out there in public is both historical and, IMO, salt and light even to those who don't believe.

10:30 AM

 
OpenID thecooper said...

"Having His concept out there in public is both historical and, IMO, salt and light even to those who don't believe."

'His concept' of marriage *is* out there, regardless of the status of the law. As it is, any church can marry any two (or more. . .) people it wants--provided they don't seek government sanction. Did the Early Church need the Roman Imperial imprimatur to bless its unions? Were they any less salt and light?

Restricting the legal institution of marriage to just opposite-sex couples is not 'having His concept out there in public'; it's 'having the government endorse His concept'. God does not need, and the First Amendment does not permit, that sort of endorsement.

8:42 PM

 
OpenID thecooper said...

An interesting take, with which I think I agree, on the religion-in-politics thing comes from Daniel Dennett.

Being religiously motivated to enter the public discourse is fine. To be expected, even--to do otherwise would betray one's faith. But when asked to defend one's religiously-inspired positions, religious explanations do not suffice.

Jesus says to feed the hungry and clothe the poor. This may convince Christians of your policy proposal (or it may not. . .), but it won't have any traction with a Hindu. So part of your divine mandate is not only to espouse the position, but to defend it in a way which will convince those whom God has not inspired with the same conviction.

It's fine for religion and politics to mix in an inspirational sense, so long as there are secular reasons for the policies. Which it seems to me is the gist of the first prong of the Lemon Test.

8:55 PM

 
Anonymous karen g said...

Are you saying that "restricting the institution of marriage to just opposite-sex couples" violates the First Amendment by endorsing religion?

Haven't heard that one before. Seems convoluted.

9:35 PM

 
OpenID thecooper said...

No, I don't think that it does, because I don't think that your motivation--the government endorsing "His concept"--is the legal intent of the current law.

I'm just pointing out that if one makes an argument as you have made, there's no way to avoid an establishment-clause problem.

5:43 AM

 
Anonymous karen g said...

That is why I separated my religiously-motivated opinion from the legal argument.

7:18 PM

 
OpenID thecooper said...

Then we agree that were the government to decide anything based on your reasoning, it would be a First Amendment violation.

9:08 PM

 
Anonymous karen g said...

My reasoning: state and federal governments deem it good public policy to support heterosexual marriage; their reasoning is probably set forth in the legislative history of laws like DOMA.

My opinion, on which you've focused, was separately stated and religiously motivated. Like an amicus brief by Catholic bishops joining others in legal argument, it's a voice in the public discourse. As you noted, government isn't going to adopt much without a broad coalition of secular support and reasoning. If they did, yes it would be constitutionally vulnerable. Those First Amendment lines can be hard to predict, depending on circumstances and how government money is spent.

9:44 AM

 
Blogger Bart Barber said...

Big Daddy,

Not only do you sound a bit like McCain, but you are likely to garner nearly as many electoral votes on Nov 4.

:-)

Pardon me for yanking upon your chain, but I could not resist. On Feb 9 you came to a post on my blog and expressed doubt that Democrats could manage to pick off any Southern states this Fall. As of this moment, RealClearPolitics forecasts VA for Obama and NC as a toss-up (polling in Obama's favor). Georgia is categorized as "leaning McCain," but the margin there is thin—barely outside the margin of error. I don't know whether you consider MO to be a "Southern" state, but it will go to Obama, too, I predict.

Do you remain resolute about the South being solid for the GOP?

I'm predicting Georgia for Obama.

2:02 PM

 
Blogger Big Daddy Weave said...

As I noted in that post, Virginia has been moving into to the Democratic column over the last few years. I tend to agree with Pat Buchanan who not long ago said that Virginia has seceded from the Confederacy. Today's Virginia is not the "real Virginia" the McCain campaign yearns for.

I'm admittedly surprised by the poll numbers coming out of Georgia and North Carolina. West Virginia and Missouri are also surprisingly close. I still think that McCain will likely win comfortably in Georgia. But who knows at this point. High African-American turnout (as seems to be happening with early voting) plus a good showing for Bob Barr and McCain could actually lose Georgia. When it comes to Georgia, my real hope is that Jim Martin will whoop up on Saxby Chambliss. I campaigned for Cleland when he lost to Chambliss back in 2002 in a rather ugly campaign.

9:43 PM

 
Blogger Bart Barber said...

Were I not opposed to gambling in all forms, we'd have to put a little something riding on the Georgia results. :-)

Congratulations to you guys. Have a bit of mercy on the rest of us when you win. Come visit me in prison in 2011 after I preach from Romans 1. :-)

1:09 PM

 

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