A Shift Looms: The President Sees Consensus, While Religious Leaders Disagree About the Church-State Divide

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

October 3, 1999

Two of our leading presidential candidates, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Gore, are talking enthusiastically about what government can do to help “faith-based organizations” solve social problems. At a White House prayer breakfast with religious leaders last Tuesday, President Clinton embraced what he called “an emerging consensus about the ways in which faith organizations and our government can work together.” Pastors dealing with social problems are landing on the covers of national magazines and scholars are predicting a new “great awakening” of religious fervor in the country.

What’s going on here? Is the wall between church and state tumbling down?

Not at all. But the turn of the millennium in America may well be remembered as a time when the country renegotiated the relationship between religion and public life, faith and culture. Don’t be scared by this: We are not about to chuck religious freedom, impose censorship or herd everyone into a church, synagogue or mosque. Indeed, it is partly because of advances in religious freedom—the result of court decisions and cultural changes that occurred during the 1960s—that it is even possible to talk about increased cooperation between the religious and governmental worlds.

There is no consensus yet on how church and state are supposed to work together, let alone how much. This is nothing new. Arguments for strong barriers between religion and government have waxed and waned through American history, for radically different reasons in different times.

Separation between church and state never meant that religion had no place in American life; remember, this is a nation that still stamps “In God We Trust” on its currency. But the rise of the religious conservatives and the culture wars of the past two decades sharpened the debate over separation and aroused both sides.

On the one side, religious conservatives decried the growing “secularization” of America and engaged in what sociologist Nathan Glazer has called a “defensive offensive” meant to restore the consensus on values that existed—or at least seemed to exist—before the ’60s. On the other, those dismayed by the religious right saw separation as a bulwark against the growing influence of organizations such as the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority.

Many rank-and-file evangelical Christians found themselves as turned off as the rest of the country by polarization around political issues related to religion. “There’s a certain backlash against the shrill, partisan message they’ve heard,” Nathan Hatch, the provost at Notre Dame and a historian of evangelical Christianity, told a conference organized by the Ethics and Public Policy Center last week. “A lot of evangelicals are suburban people, and they much more easily identify with a George Bush than a Jerry Falwell or a Gary Bauer. They’re people of values. They’re also tolerant. There’s a sense that the attack mode is counterproductive.”

The church-state divide has often been cast as a fight between religious people and their secularist foes. But out of the public eye, there is a lively argument taking place among religious leaders themselves about the wisdom of allowing any breach of the church-state wall. There was once a time when the separation of church and state was a cardinal commandment of Southern Baptists and nearly all evangelical Protestants. For most of these Protestants, spending even a dime of public money on religious schools or church programs was to assail the Founders, destroy religious freedom and turn God into a servant of the state.

“Most people think church-state separationists are atheists or humanists or just bad people,” said Derek Davis, director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. “It’s just not that way at all.”

Davis’s center at Baylor, one of the country’s premier Baptist institutions, speaks for the old separationist tradition that still finds many adherents in the pews of Baptist churches. He offers useful reminders that the current argument over the role of religion in public institutions—especially in the public schools—has its roots early in American history. In 1844, he notes, six people were killed in a riot in Philadelphia over what version of the Ten Commandments should be posted in the public schools. Whatever one thinks of today’s battles over whether to post the Ten Commandments in government buildings, nothing that disturbing has happened yet.

If all evangelical Christians thought like the old-line Baptist separationists, Clinton and other politicians probably wouldn’t be talking so rapturously about a new relationship between church and state. But the culture wars changed the church-state argument by moving many Baptists and evangelicals to a new view: that separation was promoting secularism and turning once-friendly public institutions into environments hostile to religion. The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus captured this sense in his 1984 book, “The Naked Public Square.”

Thus, on church-state issues, says Richard Cizik, director of the Washington office of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), his organization has “really done a 180 [-degree turn]” over the past 40 years. Once opposed to state aid to religious schools, Cizik said, the NAE now supports private school vouchers and has endorsed the “charitable choice” provisions of the 1997 welfare bill promoting government aid to faith-based charities.

Earlier in our history, arguments over separation were just as fierce, but had different inspirations. When Catholic immigrants began flooding America from Ireland in the 1840s, there was strong Protestant opposition to any government assistance to the schools the Catholics were establishing. Here, separatism was less about protecting government or religion than in opposing any expansion of “Popery.”

Similar fights broke out from the late ’40s through the ’60s over government aid to parochial schools. Eleanor Roosevelt carried out a famous and bitter public argument with New York’s Cardinal Spellman on the issue.

“Certainly there’s been a regrettable history of animus toward Catholics,” says Melissa Rogers, associate general counsel at the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, whose group is separationist and spun off from Southern Baptist Convention after Baptist conservatives defeated moderates and liberals.

Davis agrees that separatism was often “fueled by this anti-Catholic bias.” But both Davis and Rogers insist that anti-Catholicism was less important historically to separationists than a general fear of the effect of state involvement in religion on both government and the religious institutions themselves.

What’s striking now is that conservative Protestants who long opposed aid to Catholic schools now find themselves allied with Catholics on the voucher issue. “One of the most remarkable changes of the 20th century is the virtual evaporation of hostility between Protestants and Catholics,” says Grant Wacker, a professor of religious history at Duke University Divinity School. “I don’t think it’s because Baptists have come to have a great respect for Tridentine theology. It’s because they see Catholics as allies against graver problems. There’s a large reconfiguration going on now.”

Indeed. In the separationist wars, Baptists find themselves allied with Jews and many mainline Protestant churches. But even more relevant are liberal/conservative splits within the denominations and faiths themselves. On some church/state questions, Reform Jews are on the opposite side from Orthodox Jews. In the Christian churches, liberals and conservatives (or, as some would have it, modernists and traditionalists) ally against each other across denominational lines, creating a new politics.

What sense can be made of this, and in particular of the turn toward faith-based institutions? Is a new national consensus on church-state questions possible?

A consensus is possible—even if it will be hard to achieve—if the current arguments are understood as the third stage in a long national debate.

White Protestant hegemony in America—the first stage—began to erode with the end of Prohibition, arguably the last political project to unite mainline and fundamentalist Protestants. But the formal dominance of Protestantism was largely repealed in the 1960s, often with the strong support of progressive Protestants themselves.

The second stage involved a hard push for separation, including many of the relevant court decisions. It was no accident that this occurred as the country was coming to terms with its historic treatment of minorities. “I see the ’60s as a time when we began to grow up a little bit,” says Davis, director of the Baylor center. “If we want to be a democracy that supports the rights of minority groups, including religious minorities, we can’t have a government that stands behind and supports one world view.”

John F. Kennedy’s election as president marked the full entry of Roman Catholics into the mainstream of American life. The civil rights movement sought to right historic wrongs done to African Americans. The era swept away long-standing barriers to Jews, the effective end of restrictive covenants and new movements to defend the rights of Latinos and Asians. All brought the pervasively white and Protestant ethos in government-financed institutions and society into question.

Today’s commotion is rooted in a new fear—that the combination of legal decisions and cultural trends has marginalized religion more than is either necessary for religious freedom or desirable for the country. In creating what Yale Law School professor Stephen Carter called “The Culture of Disbelief” in his book of that title, the country seemed to replace old prejudices (of race and religion) with a new prejudice against belief itself.

The current renegotiation of boundaries—the third stage—has already borne fruit. In 1995, new federal guidelines to school administrators were designed to make clear that while the state cannot impose religion, students cannot be forced to be secular against their will or silenced in their personal expressions of religion. Individual students could not be stopped from praying, Jewish students could not be barred from wearing skull caps, any kid who wanted to talk about religion on school grounds had the right to do so. As the president said at the time, the Constitution “does not require children to leave their religion at the schoolhouse door.”

In 1997, the administration issued guidelines requiring government supervisors to respect individual expressions of faith by religious employees. Christians, the guidelines said, can keep Bibles on their desks, Muslim women can wear head scarves, Jewish workers should be accommodated as much as possible in scheduling so they can honor the High Holidays. This may all seem like common sense, but it reflects an awareness that a desire to preserve religious freedom entails both keeping the government out of the way and protecting the free expression of believers.

The battle over expanded government aid to faith-based institutions will not be so easy. Rogers calls it “the wrong way to do right.” She means that the admirable efforts by faith-based charities should get much more private and corporate support, but not government help. Yet Gore’s endorsement of what has come to be known as “charitable choice” suggests a slow shifting of the boundaries being drawn by moderate and even liberal Democrats who have come to see the churches as indispensable allies to government in solving problems.

The NAE’s Cizik thinks the rise of religious feeling in America and a decline in the hostility to religious institutions may be a sign that “a new, more acceptable consensus would replace partisan religious fights.” Even active participants in the culture wars, he says, are tired of them.

Amen to that. And if a new consensus still involves some contention, that’s neither surprising or disappointing. What else do you expect in a country where people have rioted over the Ten Commandments? But somehow, precisely because every generation has been willing to argue about it, we have managed to preserve religious liberty.