Thursday, August 30, 2012

Politics in the Pulpit: What the Separation of Church and State Actually Means

How do you respond when a friend or relative tells you that the wall of separation between Church and State in America means that political issues have no place in the nation's churches and that the religious beliefs of our citizens have no place in the public square?

Father Augustine Hoa T. Tran, a theologian and high school teacher writing for this week's Catholic Weekly Report, provides solid historical background and good ideas for refuting this mistaken position.

For one thing, Father Tran writes, the Founding Fathers intended to protect the citizenry's churches from the state, and not the other way around: "There is a legitimate separation, to be sure, but there is also a legitimate union of the two. When Thomas Jefferson wrote his famous “Wall of Separation Letter” in 1802, he was writing it to the Danbury Baptist Association to assure them of their religious freedom, to assure them that the state would not interfere with their God-given right of religious expression, that is, to protect the Church from the state, not to protect the state from the Church. His letter, which led to the “separation” clause in the Bill of Rights, was meant to allow every religion to express its views freely and publicly, in other words, to include the voice of every religion, not to exclude the voice of every religion from the public square."

For another, "Many people like to use [Christ's teaching about God and Caesar] to support a false notion of separation of Church and state, but recall why that coin belonged to Caesar. It was because the coin bore the image of Caesar that it belonged to him. Therein lies the true message, because Caesar bears the image of God. We are all created in the image and likeness of God, including Caesar, which means that Caesar belongs to God. Hence, that teaching does not affirm the false interpretation of separation of Church and state, the interpretation that does not allow one to bring his religious convictions into the public square. On the contrary, it teaches us the importance and necessity of bringing our faith into the public square. For it reminds our present-day Caesars that they belong to God, that they, too, are bound by his laws."

A  full review of Father Tran's essay is a great start on preparing to discuss this important issue with fellow citizens and voters in this presidential campaign season.


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