Whatever Happened to Separation Of Church and State?

Carole Joffe

Democratic leaders will be doing both the right thing, as well as the politically strategic one, if they keep religion out of public policy.

Item: A New York Times
describing a Republican strategy session  after the successful gubernatorial victories of two  conservatives,  Robert McDonnell in Virginia and
Christopher Christie in New Jersey, notes 
“there was barely a whisper about abortion, gay marriage or gun control”
as the group discussed  how to
design future winning campaigns. Though McDonnell and Christie had strong
records of opposition to abortion in particular, both downplayed the issues in
their campaigns.

Item: An article in Politico, describing the Catholic
Church’s role in the passage of the controversial Stupak-Pitts amendment in the
House health reform bill   (which massively restricts the
possibility of abortion coverage by private insurance companies) states:  “Success in the House came after the
Church ran a classic lobbying operation: deploying paid staff to Capitol Hill,
tapping influential bishops to make private appeals to key congressional
leaders and distributing bulletin inserts to 19,000 parishes with easy
instructions—and sample wording—for sending a message to local

Item: From a  recent Washington Post
: “The Catholic
Archdiocese of Washington said… that it will be unable to continue the social
service programs it runs for the District if the city doesn’t change a proposed
same-sex marriage law, a threat that could affect tens of thousands of people
the church helps with adoption, homelessness and health care.”

Item:  143
Catholic and evangelical leaders recently signed a manifesto stating their
intention to disobey laws with which they disagree on abortion and gay marriage. As the manifesto states,

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“We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers, that
no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence
or acquiescence.

What to make of all this? The Republicans’ intention to run their
campaigns on bread and butter issues, especially taxes, suggests that the long
and successful run of electoral victories based on abortion and other “hot
button” social issues may have run its course with a public deeply concerned
about the economy.  At the same
time, as the above examples show, conservative Catholic and Protestant clergy
have apparently decided to significantly ramp up their own direct involvement
in politics. 

particular, the Catholic Church‘s aggressive role in promoting the Stupak
amendment has drawn concern from both Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The
group Catholics for Free Choice has
the seeming willingness of the Bishops to  let the entire health care bill –historically  a key priority of the church— go down in
flames if the abortion fight does not go their way.

Others point to the Church’s disproportionate focus on
abortion in the health care reform deliberations and its corresponding neglect
of immigrants’ access to health care. The Politico
quotes one of the Catholic legislators lobbied by the Church as
saying the efforts of the Church’s lobbyists regarding immigrants were “not
even close” to those on abortion.

fundamentally, however, the Church’s recent political activism on both gay
marriage and abortion raises disturbing issues about the current state of play
regarding church/state separation in the United States. The U.S. is neither a
“Christian nation” as fundamentalists
like Pat Robertson have long-declared it to be
, nor one where its citizenry should be ruled by Catholic
teachings, as the Bishops appear intent on achieving.  But evangelical Protestants have long been tied to the
Republican party.  With Democrats
in power, the Catholic Church is inevitably more influential at this moment, given
its historical support of many of the issues favored by Democrats (with abortion
being a glaring exception). As if the coming deliberations in the weeks and
months ahead over health care reform were not complicated enough, these
negotiations also challenge the Democratic Party to reaffirm a strong
commitment to church/state separation.

not like we haven’t experienced this type of church/state dilemma before.
During the Depression years Eleanor Roosevelt, aware how  devastating unwanted pregnancies were
to impoverished families, and impressed by the efforts of Margaret Sanger,
lobbied  her husband, Franklin D.
Roosevelt, to support birth control. FDR refused, afraid of alienating urban
Catholics, an important part of his New Deal coalition.

that was then. Now, those who support reproductive justice are a crucial part
of the Democratic base.  Moreover,
Catholic voters make use of contraceptive and abortion services at about the
same rate as other Americans. 
Democratic leaders will be doing both the right thing, as well as the
politically strategic one, if they keep religion out of public policy.

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