Throwing Up in the School Cafeteria

Gordon C. Stewart          Feb. 28, 2012

“It makes me want to throw up!”

Nothing causes indigestion more than a food fight over religion and politics. Just because there’s a food fight in the school cafeteria doesn’t mean we should join it.

The 2012 election is shaping up as a battle over religion and the state. But the battle is ill-framed, using a shotgun that sprays everywhere.

The failure to differentiate the issues is widespread in the thinking of the candidates, their supporters and detractors, and news media that are increasing driven by sensational sound-bites that increase viewership and profits than by professional journalistic standards that would help clarify the debate.

Take Mr. Santorum’s statement on ABC’s “This Week” when asked how his faith fits in with his ideas about governing. He referred to then-candidate John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s speech affirming the absolute separation of church and state. The speech, he said, makes him “want to throw up.”

“I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” he said. “The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.”

There are three separate issues here: 1) the role of religion in shaping public policy; 2) the role of a candidate’s personal faith in the exercise of the duties of elected office in a democratic republic; and 3) the wall of separation between church (institutional religion) and the State.

The question was not about church (i.e. institutional religion) and state. It was issue #2: how the candidate’s faith/religious convictions would influence the way he would govern, if elected President of a pluralistic democratic republic.

“To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up. What kind of country do we live that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?” Santorum asked.

In that respect, Mr. Santorum is correct. For the public or a candidate to assume that it would make no difference would assume that faith and religion are strictly private, personal matters, while politics is a public matter. But as theologians, ethicists and critics of religion like Bill Maher agree, that’s not how it works. What we believe privately informs and drives what we do publicly, whether our personal convictions are religious or some version of secular humanism.

The cross-over between these core convictions and public policy is too important to ignore. The “culture wars” are real. The definition of marriage, the rights of women v. the rights of the unborn, institutional principle/conscience (e.g. contraception) and health care, the value of public education, end-of-life decisions, war and peace, workers’ rights, America’s role in the world, the distribution and re-distribution of wealth, wealth and poverty, and capital punishment are public issues hotly debated by an electorate whose varying religious and secular convictions place them front and center on the national agenda.

The genius of the U.S. Constitution lay in its framers’ ability to differentiate  between individual faith and institutional religion when it comes to matters of State.  What was later described as the “wall of separation” between church and state was, in fact, a wall that prevents the establishment of any one religion as the religion of the State. That is to say, the United States of America was not and would never be a theocracy. It would bea secular democratic republic which respected the free exercise of religion, whatever its stripe.

The founders were also clear that the success of the experiment in representative democracy rested on its citizens being what John Adams called “a moral people and religious people”  instructed in civility and committed to the search for goodness and the common good. They drew the line between the State and institutional religion to protect the republic from the horrors they had witnessed when the two had merged in the attempted theocracy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and to protect the free exercise of religion from the restrictive powers of the State.

In that sense, all three questions are fair game. Given the current food fight, the question is not whether to keep all such discussions out of the school cafeteria. Only when we, the electorate, inform ourselves of the nuances of the debate, will the cafeteria be more civil and the candidates stop throwing up in public because they swallowed the wrong question.

7 thoughts on “Throwing Up in the School Cafeteria

  1. All right Gordon. I think I understand your point, and it’s a good one. Not all belief systems are equally valid. I think there are a few questions, such as these: Where is the line drawn? What is it in a belief system that needs to be stopped? How is that decision reached?

    I believe strongly that people do have a right to their belief system, regardless of how strange it may be ——- unless it brings harm to anyone. Physical harm is the easy part. Jim Jones is a prime example of that.

    Psychological and emotional harm is much more difficult to define, and infinitely more difficult to heal. The struggle to define family violence is a good example of that. “He never hit her. He shamed and terrorized her, confined her to the house, for 10 years. He never locked a door on her.”

    I’ve worked for several years in domestic violence, and the above is not rare. But is harm to her provable? Didn’t she consent?

    I think of people who were killed at Waco? Why did they stay there? Why do women stay in the FLDS? Why are there black supporters of the KKK?

    I believe that any group which diminishes an individual’s autonomy and value based on something physical, genetic, natural, etc., is doing harm. I believe that some of Santorum’s beliefs, some of the RCC’s beliefs, Christianists, and others, are doing harm. I believe that should be called out, and not be accepted.

    How do we, as a democratic nation, and as Christians, draw that line and protect vulnerable people from that harm? Can we?


  2. I agree with you Gordon, that not all ideas or convictions are equal. I think an important point here is that even if an idea or conviction is completely invalid, it is not necessarily the government’s job to fix it or outlaw the disagreeable one. (I don’t think that is what you were saying. That’s where my thinking went.)

    Santorum’s words sound to me like he wants his particular definition of Christianity to take priority over any other. I also think he may have deliberately misunderstood JFK’s speech so that he could throw out (as opposed to “throw up”) a little red meat to his most ardent followers.

    I believe that unless an idea or conviction is harmful to others, it must be let stand. I think it can only be taken down through the use of persuasion.

    In my opinion, much of Santorum’s belief system is harmful to others, because he wants to use the power of office and force of law to make others behave according to his belief system. He wants the government to exert invasive control of lives and deny individuality. It seems to me that perhaps the majority of his opinions that make up his belief system are not supported by science, fact, or well-considered reading of scripture.

    My conclusion is that Santorum has a real right to his belief system, but the separation of church and state precludes it from being his basis for law. That, and because it is harmful to others, no less than Jim Jones in Guyana.

    (BTW, I think he may have some mental health issues too, because he makes such illogical leaps. Or maybe it’s that running for President among the Tea Baggers and Christianists requires a suspension of logic. Dunno.)


  3. Maybe the good old Golden Rule, would be appropriate here. Do not force your religious, beliefs on me and I would not force my beliefs on you, especially in the political arena. We have many world views among the people on our country. We need to respect each other’s right to “life, liberty , and the pursuit of happiness”. And learn to look at things through other’s eyes.


    • Yes, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is what we’re guaranteed in this country. Looking at things through the eyes of the other is exactly what we’re called to do. “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.” The difficulty here is that ideas matter and somehow we need to move beyond supposing that every idea or conviction or way is the same or that they are all efficacious. Which is to say, you do your thing and I’ll do mine, and if, by chance, our two worlds should somehow meet, so much the better; otherwise we’ll just leave each other alone. Some ideas are just plain “nuts” and we need to say so (in less dismissive language, of course) – like Jim Jones’ Guyana temple where everyone drank the purple Kool-Aid. Religion, like science, is a search for truth, which is why it so prickly, and also why interfaith discussions need to be real encounters of what we and others really do believe about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. How to live by the Golden Rule and still think critically and engage other views is no easy task. But without that, we sink into a sea of subjectivity that, without some objectivity, is personal and societal quick sand. Thank you so much, Karin, for thilnking with me about this. Your comment stimulated further thinking! Grace and Peace!


  4. As a recovering Republican who was reared a little right of Goldwater, I am beginning to think that the current religious and socially based campaigns of the Republican “frontrunners” are simply untenable in the upcoming election cycle. At this time, Republican candidates are addressing the issues of a misanthropic minority and missing the real issues of this country. I think it should be obvious that issues of Jobs and the Economy will trump religiously based social issues resurrected from the last election cycle if they are put head to head as planks of respective campaign platforms.

    A third Republican Candidate may yet join the fray. If so, perhaps they will be more centrist and moderate….and have much better sense than the current “frontrunners”. Until then, I will remain a Centrist Independent and vote for the best Centrist Candidate when the time comes.

    Power to the People!


  5. You did a beautiful job of dealing with this issue. I, on the other hand, had a heated debate with a close far-right conservative, and once again I was part of the problem – if only I would keep my mouth shut! I think that Kennedy was not saying only atheists can have a say in how things go, but that one should not make a law that is based purely on one’s own religious beliefs with no basis for being passed except for those beliefs. I think that it is very interesting that various religious groups would endorse Santorum’s opinion when he is a Catholic and many of them are not, yet they endorse his idea that religion and state should not remain completely separate – when, if he were president, his Catholic religion would be the one he was uniting with state – not any other religions. Is it just me, or has all thinking begun to rely on opinions and feelings – leaving all facts, logic and research completely out of the mix? Thank you for reintroducing these endangered species.


    • It’s not just you. Logic, fact, and research require self-criticism and critical thinking. Theirs is a different game from the food fight of opinion and feeling. The capacity for self-governance depends on rescuing the public discussion from the cesspool that politics has become. Thanks, Christina, for sharing your thoughts.


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