No one enjoys witty one liners more than I do and Rick Warren’s distinction between the separation of church and state and faith and politics is a beauty. On the surface of course there is a difference. Faith is an attitude, a synonym for trust, that can be applied to just about anything from faith in a traditional God in the sky who rewards and punishes, to faith in no-God or in the seamless interdependence and Oneness of All, to faith in human beings, to faith in the man in the moon while church refers to an institutional expression of religious faith and belief. Politics is a process that happens anywhere people are living together and making decisions while the state is a particular institutional arrangement with particular rules.
What Warren is trying to say in his quip is that there should be a way for us to speak about our faith as it affects our political opinions without it dividing, polarizing, and being used coercively – the unfortunate way religious fundamentalists have used religious faith over the past two decades. There ought to be a way for us to bring all of who we are, including our faith, into our public conversations without using our faith and our understanding of God as some political trump card or in the words of Jim Wallis to bring our faith to our political debate with a humility and ever-present clarity that, “God is neither a Democrat nor a Republican”.
Of course it would have been far more comforting to those of us who are not conservative Christians if Warren had actually made this clear to his conservative church members living in one of the most conservative area codes in the country. They wildly applauded McCain’s prideful declaration of his religious belief that life begins at conception and who were extremely cool to Obama’s far more nuanced view that when life begins is beyond his expertise as he is neither a scientist nor a theologian but that one can be against abortion, as he is, recognize the seriousness with which women make the decision to have an abortion and therefore support a woman’s choice.
But let’s be honest the very fact that the two candidates felt obligated to come to Saddleback Church and answer questions from a pastor, who though far more tolerant than Robertson, Perkins, Hagee or Dobson and who possesses a more inclusive political agenda than his conservative colleagues, one that includes environment, poverty, and AIDS and not only the divisive issues of abortion, homosexuality, Creationism and prayer in school, indicates that we are indeed in a period in which we are renegotiating the line of separation between church and state. In fact, the very reason, whether consciously or unconsciously, Warren even made this joking remark was because he knew well that his Church Forum in Prime Time was obviously an expression of the renegotiation of church and state and (hopefully) he wanted to ease the tension that such change evokes.
But I actually think that in the long term this is a good thing. The separation of church and state, one of the great innovations in governing, has historically protected both religion and state from their worst impulses to abuse power. But the relationship between religion and state, like all living relationships, is dynamic and always shifting. Separation of church and state ought to be seen as a verb not a noun – an ongoing construction – and today we are in a serious period of renegotiation and recalibration of the relationship. But we need to be honest about the increasingly shrill quality of the debate. Often, the debate is less about religion and state and more an expression of liberals (secular and religious) disdain and fear of religious conservatives and religious conservatives’ absolutism and overreaching attempts to legislate their views. This is bad faith and bad for America.
The separation of church and state has become confused with keeping religious wisdom and values out of public policy discussions. This has had the dual effect of weakening, if not impoverishing, our public policy debates and of provoking an angry reaction from traditional religious people who have felt dissed, excluded, and barred from bringing their whole selves to the public square.
We need a debate that transcends both religious fundamentalists and their arrogance in imagining they know exactly what God wants for all of us and secular fundamentalists and their arrogance in thinking they know exactly what the God they do not believe in wants for all of us. America is neither France where religion is rejected nor Muslim countries where religion is the source of legislation. We are a unique experiment and one of the great qualities of America is our religious liberty. But religious liberty assumes a robust religious life in which people can and will draw on their wisdom to contribute to public policy conversation.
As we renegotiate the line between religion and state we need to address both the left’s historically legitimate fears of religious coercion and the right’s legitimate claim of the richness and depth religious values and wisdom contribute to life. We need a third way of understanding the separation between church and state – a never firmly fixed place between the religious triumphalism of the right (that simply feeds the fears of the left) and the trivialization of religion of the left (that feeds the anger of the right).
Perhaps we need more of what the right and the left both advocate. We need much more openness to public expression of religious values and wisdom (the partial truth of the right) about the profound debates in society (of course, offered in an accessible language to people from outside one’s religious community) and we need stricter institutional boundaries between religion and state (the left’s partial truth) to insure genuine religious liberty.
Paradoxically, the expansion of religious liberty (a liberal goal) requires greater openness and respect for religious expression in the public square and the openness to greater religious expression in the public square (a conservative goal) requires stricter institutional boundaries. Jews, victims of religious coercion and possessors of a great wisdom tradition, know both these truths. We have an interest in this third way. Whether this third way was indeed expressed in the Saddleback Church Forum and whether the church members who attended the Forum see themselves as models of this third way and not simply a kinder and gentler attempt to Christianize America (and make God a petty political partisan) only God can judge.