`Wall of Separation' Outmoded

UNEASY relations between faith and public life in America got attention last August when President Clinton praised Yale professor Stephen Carter's new book, ``The Culture of Disbelief.'' That praise is echoed by Ronald Thiemann, dean of the Harvard Divinity School. Dr. Thiemann, a Lutheran theologian, has spent five years working on ``Religion in American Public Life: A Dilemma for Democracy,'' due out next summer. He recently spoke with Robert Marquand of the editorial page.

Many Americans regard a ``wall of separation'' between church and state as a bedrock principle. You are critical of it.

The separation of church and state as a metaphor has limited the positive contribution of communities of faith in our public life. As a principle of jurisprudence it has led to a hopelessly confused pattern of Supreme Court decisions on First Amendment issues since 1947, when Hugo Black first enunciated it.

The notion of ``separation'' confuses conceptually a law that is really about freedom. The language of separation obscures the fact that the religion clauses are finally about free exercise of religion. The language of separation has no place in those clauses. It has very little place in the tradition of the US prior to 1947. Roger Williams first used ``a wall of separation'' to describe how the church should keep itself pure from the power of government. Thomas Jefferson uses the phrase in a letter to a congregation in Danbury, Conn., following the Constitutional Congress in 1787. After that it has no role in American history until Hugo Black introduces it in 1947 in Everson. Since then the concept has led to a state of deep confusion about religion's proper role in public life.

Stephen Carter says American law and politics trivialize religion. Do you agree?

Carter makes the case well that there are significant pockets of disbelief in certain elite professions that influence public opinion. He doesn't attempt to say the culture as a whole is rife with disbelief. Quite the contrary. He argues, as many of us have, that the people of America remain remarkably and resiliently religious, more so than any other post-industrial democracy in the West.

But the point is that law and politics have defined themselves in such a way, in relation to a particular interpretation of the First Amendment, as to suggest that religion cannot be taken seriously in those aspects of public life that intersect with either law or politics. Importantly, Carter is saying to fellow professionals: ``Give religion a break. Back off for awhile and listen more carefully than you have in the past. Don't immediately jump to the conclusion that because something is religious it must be illiberal.''

Carter, though, is more comfortable with the usefulness of the separation of church and state than I am. I think the metaphor of separation does very little positive work any longer and does a great deal of negative damage.

Are doors needed in this wall?

I hope we can think in new categories about the complex relation of religion and public life. It is more than just opening a few doors. It is taking the bricks and starting to build all over again. A better metaphor may be a house in need of reconstruction. We must develop a clear sense of where the rooms and divisions are; but we need to encourage the kind of movement you normally get in a house with doors and windows. The notion of church, state, and wall are too simplistic today.

Carter hints at this. He says the Framers never imagined the welfare state that emerged with the Roosevelt presidency. The notion that government would have regulatory influence on almost all aspects of American life, including regulation of nonprofit groups and religious communities, was not in the conceptual world of the Framers. That alone raises questions about whether the notion of ``separation'' can do justice to our current situation.

Say more about your project.

I'm interested in the question of whether religious conviction and beliefs can play a role in justifying arguments for a more just, compassionate public policy.

Religion functions in part to offer alternative worlds of meaning and authority from the state. It acts as a bulwark against tyranny. A more difficult question is: Can religious persons, communities, and arguments play a role not just in defending religion from the state, but in creating consensus on policy derived from common values?

I hope to develop proposals welcoming religion back into the public square, but under conditions that assure it is compatible with fundamental principles of democracy.

What I am working on is a rethinking of the liberal political tradition - to show how liberalism, which does a good job of encouraging pluralism, can do so while still helping us find fundamental values we share in common.

Some argue that too much focus on diversity works against religious depth.

A way must be made to understand that one's deepest convictions can be maintained while still engaging in relationships with others that are characterized by mutual respect. As one's religious convictions deepen, one's ability to engage in critical and open discussion with others should broaden. That isn't always the case. The fear is, particularly as fostered by a certain spectrum of liberal theory, that the deeper the conviction, the more fanatical the public stance. That is not a connection that most people who consider themselves deeply religious would agree to. Yet few public figures show how one can be deeply grounded in one's own faith and still open to the respect needed in a pluralistic democracy.

Why should moral and spiritual views be allowed to enter the public realm?

Because they do already. Anyone who thinks they do not can't understand human psychology, much less politics. People make judgments about candidates and policies all the time based on a moral intuition about what is of good character or bad character. But we are not very good as a society in thinking critically about these matters. The moral principles of many Americans are shaped by religious convictions; but unexamined religion can be dangerous in the public realm. What we need is religiously informed, critically examined moral reasoning in the public sphere.

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