The Corner

A Defense of Church-State Separation

A writer at the conservative Catholic website Crisis (which was known for a while as InsideCatholic) uses the recent contretemps over some of Santorum’s less judicious statements as an opportunity to discuss why separation of church and state is not just the law, but also a good idea:

Santorum must also remember that the separation of church and state is a good thing for the Catholic Church, and for people of faith in general. The concept has an honorable history within the Church. . . .

In the Protestant-dominated culture of early America, Catholics were often the champions of separation of church of state, out of self-interest if not out of principle. In 1785, Father John Carroll, soon to be chosen as the first Catholic bishop of the United States, declared that he and his co-religionists  “have all smarted heretofore under the lash of an established church, and shall therefore [be] on our guard against every approach towards it.” The multiplicity of Christian sects made the doctrine a practical necessity, and many Protestants, such as James Madison, therefore also adopted the principle, whose great by-product was religious toleration.

Catholics in early America who advocated the separation of church and state and toleration were liable to be charged with religious indifferentism, or a lack of commitment to the truth of their faith. This guilt by association persists to this day. Church-state separatists are in fact viewed more dimly in our contemporary world in that they are seen as enemies of religious belief itself. I suspect that is why devout Catholics like Santorum have a knee-jerk negative reaction to the doctrine.

Social conservatives across the religious spectrum tend to downplay the concept of the separation of church and state, and many dismiss it entirely. They are fond of pointing out that the Constitution does not contain the phrase “separation of church and state,” and that the terminology about a “wall of separation” originated first in America in Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 Letter to the Danbury Baptists. Conservatives generally like to think that this proves that the Constitution contained no such idea and, consequently, the American political tradition does not.

This is a mistaken notion. Certain concepts are in the Constitution even if the phraseology we use to sum up these ideas is not. Religious Americans (of all stripes) ought to embrace the concept of church-state separation, for as John Carroll understood, it works to protect the church from the state, and in keeping the church out of state affairs, it keeps the church from being corrupted.

Santorum seems to understand half of this equation, as he is rightly sounding the alarm about the federal government’s Health and Human Service mandate . . .

The writer is Dr. Stephen M. Klugewicz, and I find his words persuasive. (He also has interesting things to say about how Santorum got JFK partly right and partly wrong. You can read his whole article here.) And I must point out that he is not exactly an outlier: Contrary to the stereotypes cherished by anti-religion propagandists, people of strong religious faith are often the stoutest defenders of church-state separation. One of the most eloquent defenses of the concept I’ve ever heard came from a Baptist preacher at a fundamentalist church I used to attend occasionally — precisely the kind of church the anti-religious like to sneer at as “Talibaptist.”  


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