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Religious & Ethics Weekly
John Green
on America's Evangelicals Survey

NOW
The Separation of Church and State
Interviews from both sides of the debate.

Godís Country
Related Resources on this week's show


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4.28.06
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Politics and Economy:
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God's Country?
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now Perspectives: Religion and Politics

While the debate on the "separation of church and state" has been around for centuries arguments from both sides seem to have grown increasingly loud and passionate.

Some religious groups have come under scrutiny for promoting politicians and championing causes that critics say is beyond their scope.

NOW asked a number of commentators for their views on whether or not religious organizations have become too involved in American politics. We also cite a poll of Americans on related issues.

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now "Roughly half of Americans (51%) think churches and other houses of worship should express their views on day-to-day social and political questions," a poll of the American people found... more

now now now "The Bible teaches that civil government was God's idea (Romans 13:1). Since God created it, would he want his people to stay out of it? No," Kenyn M. Cureton, a Vice President at the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention... more now
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now "...many evangelical churches and ministries now function as adjuncts of the Republican Party," Michelle Goldberg, Senior Political Reporter for Salon.com... more now now now "The U.S. Constitution guarantees the separation of church and state, but that does not require a separation of religion and politics," John Green, Senior Fellow, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life... more now
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now "In each subsequent election cycle more religious organizations are going further and further, abusing their public service role by mobilizing voters to affect electoral outcomes," Roy Speckhardt, Executive Director, American Humanist Association.... more now now now "Many of the leaders of the religious right do put politics before religion; for example, they criticize pro-choice Democrats but not pro-choice Republicans...," Alan Wolfe, Director, Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, Boston College... more now
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The American People
Fifty-one percent of Americans think churches and other houses of worship should express their views on day-to-day social and political questions, while 44% believe these organizations should stay out of political matters, according to a July 2005 poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public.

The research found that the public is generally comfortable with politicians mentioning their religious faith. More people say there is too little expression of religious faith by political leaders (39%) than say there is too much (26%).

Michelle Goldberg, senior political reporter for Salon.com and Author of "Kingdom Coming"
Rightwing religious organizations have become intertwined with American politics to a disturbing degree, so that many evangelical churches and ministries now function as adjuncts of the Republican Party (or maybe visa versa). In 2004, ostensibly non-partisan ballot initiatives like Ohio's anti-gay marriage Issue 1 allowed churches to take over huge parts of the GOP's get-out-the-vote apparatus -- they ran voter registration drives and massive phone-banking operations. Bush, in turn, has used the faith-based initiative like a Tammany Hall patronage system to reward supportive religious leaders. Not all Republicans are part of the religious right, of course, but the movement has a huge degree of power in setting the party's agenda.

John McCain has learned this lesson well. In 2000, McCain tried to separate himself from the dominant block within the GOP, denouncing Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as "agents of intolerance." That kind of independence didn't work out too well for him, so this year McCain is embracing the forces he once disdained, giving the commencement speech at Falwell's Liberty University and telling Tim Russert, "I believe that the Christ -- quote, 'Christian right,' has a major role to play in the Republican Party." Obviously, the history of American politics is filled with the deeply devout, but the emergence of a sectarian political party -- one that frequently casts its opponents as not just wrong but metaphysically evil -- is something new and ominous.

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John Green, Senior Fellow, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life
The involvement of religious groups in American politics has often generated controversy and with it confusion about its legality. The U.S. Constitution guarantees the separation of church and state, but that does not require a separation of religion and politics. After all, the Constitution also guarantees the free exercise of religion and for many people political activity is an integral part of the exercise of their religion. In addition, religious people have all the same political rights as other Americans. There are, however, some restrictions on the form religious politics can take. For example, in return for an exemption from paying taxes, congregations and some other religious organizations are prohibited from engaging directly in partisan politics, such as endorsing candidates. But within the context of such rules, religious people can voice their opinions on political matters in a variety of ways.

Whether such legal activities are desirable is another question. Here there is often considerable debate--even within religious communities themselves. Just as one can agree with freedom of speech and disagree with what a particular person speaks, one can accept religious politics and reject the political goals of a particular religious group. More often than not, it is the deeper disagreements about issues that raise questions about the political activities of religious people.

Roy Speckhardt, Executive Director, American Humanist Association
Many religious organizations have become so involved in American politics that they are breaching the wall separating church and state. Using their emotional influence and shared religious ideas as a wedge to provide filtered information on cultural and scientific issues, they exercise undue influence on the unsuspecting faithful. The believers they approach often don't recognize that the provided background on issues and candidates may be factually inaccurate, misleading, or one-sided. Moreover, in each subsequent election cycle more religious organizations are going further and further, abusing their public service role by mobilizing voters to effect electoral outcomes. Humanists hold that using religious institutions as an extension of the cyclical political machinery damages the founding and constitutional principles that have made America great. Secular government is necessary for effective democracy in a pluralistic society--and proper respect for the deeply held beliefs of all citizens."

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Alan Wolfe, Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, Boston College
Everyone in America has the right to free speech and ought to be involved in politics. This includes religious organizations, which often bring to public discussion a prophetic perspective from which society benefits. Yet every American is also free to recognize that when religious individuals and organizations put politics before faith, their views have no special status and ought to be given no special respect. Many of the leaders of the religious right do put politics before religion; for example, they criticize pro-choice Democrats but not pro-choice Republicans or they insist that issues such as gay marriage are central but not issues such as poverty. It would be a serious mistake for religious leaders and organizations from the left to do the same thing.

Kenyn M. Cureton, a Vice President at the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention
The short answer is: "No." The Bible teaches that civil government was God's idea (Romans 13:1). Since God created it, would he want his people to stay out of it? No. Jesus instructs: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" (Matthew 22:21). Christ-followers are obligated to contribute to government, which in America means more than paying taxes. To abandon the political arena is to disobey Christ's command to be change-agents in our culture (Matthew 5:13-16). Christians have a biblical mandate to participate in government.

Christians and churches have been vitally involved in American politics from the beginning. True, the First Amendment originally prohibited Congress from making any law establishing a particular denomination of Christianity as "The National Church," but it also protected the free exercise of our faith, including in the political arena. In that discussion, our Founding Fathers narrowly defined "separation of church and state," but never intended a strict separation of God from government. Their writings and actions clearly demonstrate this point - a point that has been lost through decades of historical revisionism and the rhetoric of secular fundamentalists. Therefore, Christians have a God-given responsibility and a Constitutional right to be even more involved in the American political arena.

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