Church-State Separation and the Obama Mandate


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ABSTRACT Church-State Separation and the Obama Mandate: Catholic World Report HOME ARCHIVED ARTICLES EDITORIAL CWR BLOG VIDEO ABOUT US NEWS BRIEFS / RSS FREE eNEWSLETTER DONATE ADVERTISE CWR Archive:   Opinion Opinion Print   /   Share   /   Send Church-State Separation and the Obama Mandate March 21, 2012 A mistaken understanding of the separation of church and state has shaped the debate over the contraception mandate. Paul Kengor “The beliefs of Catholics should have no impact on government policy,” yelled a voice from my kitchen radio, a talk-radio caller, a medical doctor. “We have separation of church and state in this country!” The caller’s sentiment is far too common. For too long, this country has suffered under the yoke of a severely misguided understanding of church-state separation, fostered by secular liberals/progressives. And now, those same forces—or at least those devoted to President Obama and “abortion rights” above all else—are employing that very misunderstanding in an assault upon the religious freedom and consciences of Catholics and many other believers. They are doing so, of course, via the Obama-HHS mandate on contraception and abortion drugs. The problem begins with the very notion of “separation of church and state.” Huge numbers of Americans mistakenly believe that those words are found in the Constitution, thus ascribing to them a tremendous weight and power that plainly do not exist. These words are revered as if they were the first words chiseled into the First Amendment. They are not. They are not found in the Constitution at all. As a professor and lecturer, I have dealt with this mistaken notion my whole career. I’ll never forget a moment when giving a talk on the faith of Ronald Reagan at the National Presbyterian Church in the nation’s capital, a church Reagan attended as president. The talk was well-received, except for an elderly gentleman who approached me afterward with fury in his eyes. He leveled his finger at me and angrily wanted to know how a Christian like myself could bear such “false witness,” and in a church of all places. What had I allegedly lied about? “You didn’t tell us about the Constitution’s separation of church and state!” the man steamed. “Ronald Reagan was not allowed, under our Constitution, to bring his personal faith into the public square!” Right there, at that moment, was a display of everything wrong in this debate, which liberals have nurtured for a long, long time. So long, in fact, that this educated, well-off, well-dressed Washingtonian had been a victim well into his late 80s. I attempted to calmly, carefully inform this man that those words are not in the Constitution, and that, to the contrary, the First Amendment has two clauses related to religion: 1) the establishment clause and 2) the free exercise clause. As to the former, it essentially means the federal government cannot establish or favor a particular national faith or denomination. As to the latter, it means that we Americans—our public officials included—are permitted to freely exercise our faith without government interference or intrusion or obstruction. The government cannot dictate our faith. The entirety of the passage reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The scandal is that modern liberals/progressives have vastly exaggerated and misinterpreted the establishment clause, and often to the almost complete exclusion of the free exercise clause. Thus, you will often hear secularists argue that a “constitutional” “wall of separation” prohibits public officials—that is, public officials who are conservative Republicans (they don’t apply the same rigid standard to liberal Democrats)—from exercising and often even merely mentioning their faith in the public square. Liberals/progressives, who dominate our educational system, have advanced this mistaken notion with stunning success. And so, when I informed my elderly friend at the National Presbyterian Church that “separation of church and state” appears nowhere in the Constitution, he gave me an incredulous, embarrassed look of horror, disbelief, and confusion. “Well, then,” he huffed, partly in doubt, “where is it found?” The phrase is found in an 1802 letter from Thomas Jefferson. Here is the context. On October 7, 1801, the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, which was a beleaguered religious minority, wrote to Jefferson : “Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty: that Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals, that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious.......