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.