Don’t we believe in the separation of church and state? Why a day of prayer for the legal protection of the unborn?
The Constitution of the United States of America has been said to have established the “separation of church and state.” I certainly cannot speak for everyone in terms of what they believe this means but in common conversation with my college students and people in general, I get the sense that some take it to mean that faith and government regulations cannot have anything to do with each other. No law can be made which respects a religious tenant and/or no one acting under a religious tenant can ever be held accountable under the law. In some respects, this is accurate and in others, not so much.
Perhaps before we get too deeply into this, we should look at what the constitution actually says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” (1st Amendment). No, I’m no constitutional scholar, nor even an attorney, so I will not enter into a diatribe about case law on this topic, but as a catechist, I think it’s important ask the question, “But what does our faith say in response?”
It seems to me that what the constitution states is very different from the total separation of church and state some seem to promote. At least to me, this says the government cannot make a particular faith tradition the law of the land, nor may they interfere with the legitimate practice of a genuine faith tradition. The Catholic Church agrees with this and respects this as a good law. This may mean that the government cannot force people to belong to the Catholic faith, but nor can it enforce alcohol age restrictions within the context of our worship, allowing a second grader to consume the Precious Blood of Christ.
For Catholics, however, we should be very clear. Our Church does not intend a total separation of Church and state, and on the contrary, suggests that our faith ought to inform our political systems and decisions. In this way the Church and state can be partners rather than adversaries. This does not mean that the Church requires that Catholics establish their own political parties, nor that we establish some kind of theocracy, but rather that we understand what being a follower of Jesus Christ demands of us as human beings. While we certainly have our private beliefs, we are called upon to take those beliefs out into the public spere and spread them to the betterment of all humanity. We cannot simply turn our faith off as we enter the realm of politics and on again on Sunday. Jesus preached in the synagogue, but then also went out into the streets and showed people how they ought to live their day to day lives. Do we follow Jesus or not? Some would respond that Jesus never interfered with politics. Um… Yep, he did, at least on several occasions. He points out that we have to pay our taxes, he interferes in the execution of a woman caught in adultery, he engages the leaders of his people regularly, and in the end is executed by the Roman state.
So what does the Church suggest for us? While the Church does not tell us every detail of how a country ought to be run nor how politics conducted, as it leaves these things to reasonable people to decide in their given circumstances, she does suggest that there are some basic parameters and principles. One of the foremost of these is the dignity of human life. All life. From conception to death. Upholding the right of each individual to exist, to have the basic necessities of life, and to be protected from harm, is one of our primary religious duties.
While I cannot reasonably expect that, under our constitution, the state will enshrine Catholic social teaching as the law of the land, it is not unreasonable to seek to share our vision of the dignity of the human person and to make the world a better place by fighting against racism, abortion, segregation, and so many other injustices, by giving every individual certain legal protections. In this sense, as a follower of Jesus, I have an obligation to be as Catholic when I enter the voting booth as when I receive Communion on Sunday.