June 8, 2004
One cannot fully discuss the issue of religion in the public square without first addressing this fundamental question: what is the proper relationship between church and state?
Mr. Madison and Mr. Jefferson thought the question so important they debated it for a decade in the Virginia legislature.
Our founding fathers placed so much importance on the question of church and state that they chose to put their answer in the first sixteen words of the Bill of Rights: "Congress shall pass no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
In his letter to the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut in 1802, Mr. Jefferson said the intent of this constitutional principle was to build "a wall of separation between church and state."
Perhaps America's greatest contribution to the world from our experiment in democracy has been the religious freedom and tolerance that have resulted from the principle of church-state separation. In fact, I would challenge anyone to show me any nation where direct government involvement in religion has resulted in more religious freedom or tolerance than we have here in the United States.
As a person of faith, a lifelong Methodist and the son-in-law of a Baptist minister, I thank God that we live in a nation where our founding fathers had the wisdom to put religion on a pedestal far above the reach of politicians.
Our founding fathers understood that the lesson of human history is that three things happen when government and politicians get involved in religion: First, the rights of religious minorities are limited. Second, politicians cannot withstand the temptation to use religion as a means to their own political ends. And, third, government funding of churches, synagogues and mosques ultimately harms houses of worship by undermining their independence and by creating a public impression that they are just another bureaucratic arm of the state.
Perhaps that lesson of history is why I would warn religious leaders and people of faith to be cautious when any politician says, "I am with the government and I am here to help you."
Mr. Chairman, as this Subcommittee and House Committees move forward on the question of the proper role between church and state, I would respectfully make three suggestions.
1. Since the issue of religious freedom is so important to all Americans, and since our founding fathers debated this question for years and then chose to make church-state separation the first principle enunciated in the Bill of Rights, this Subcommittee should hold a number of in-depth hearings on this issue, inviting legal, religious and academic scholars from differing viewpoints. To do anything less would be a disservice to the 1st Amendment and the religious freedom and tolerance it has protected so magnificently for over two centuries.
2. This Committee's public notice said it will examine "government discrimination against religious expression..." In doing so, I hope you will have hearings on the implications of denying American citizens tax-funded jobs based solely on their religious faith. While I support many parts of the Administration's faith-based initiatives, I strongly disagree with the provisions that make it legal for hiring and firing decisions for public jobs to be based solely on one's religious beliefs. No American citizen should have to pass someone else's private religious test to qualify for a tax-funded job. In my opinion, the federal government should not be in the business of subsidizing religious discrimination with tax dollars. That type of serious religious discrimination deserves this Committee's attention.
Also, on the issue of discrimination, as a Christian I revere the Ten Commandments and try to live by them every day, but, I hope you will address these questions: Do we really want politicians and public officials deciding which specific religious doctrine or beliefs should and should not be prominently placed in public courthouses and schoolhouses? It's a Pandora's Box. Either all groups, including religious supporters of Islamic militants, Wiccans, the Church of the Creator and others will be allowed to display their religious beliefs on public buildings, or we can follow the Chinese government's model where politicians have the power to decide which religious doctrine receives official government approval. Which will it be?
3. Let's debate this vital and complicated issue of church-state separation with respect for those with differing viewpoints. I have great respect for Mr. Towey of the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, but I believe he went too far last week when he defined the church-state debate as a "cultural war." Groups such as the Baptist Joint Committee, Methodists and the American Jewish Committee are strong defenders of church-state separation. Are they guilty of fighting a cultural war against religious expression in the public place? I hardly think so. Even if you disagree with their views, we should respect the fact that these people of faith believe they are fighting to protect religious freedom from government entanglement. I believe Mr. Towey owes many people of faith an apology for suggesting they are involved in a cultural war, in effect, a religious war. As we fight Osama bin Laden and the war on terrorism, let's leave the lexicon of war to our Army generals in Iraq and Afghanistan and keep it out of honest debates on religious freedom here at home. Our nation doesn't deserve the kind of divisiveness that could be caused by putting religious debates in the context of being a war, cultural, religious or otherwise.
This Committee, in announcing and naming this hearing, did not go so far as to describe this debate as war. However, it used loaded phrases such as "hostility to religion" and "hostile to religious expression."
This debate is not about who is on God's side and who is not. Religious critics were dead wrong when they attacked Mr. Madison and Mr. Jefferson two centuries ago and said they were anti-religion because of their belief in church-state separation. Let's not repeat that same mistake today.
In conclusion, the Bill of Rights has never been amended in over two centuries. Especially when it comes to the first freedom--religious freedom--we should move carefully and thoughtfully before we tamper with a system of religious freedom and tolerance that is the model for the world.
It would be ironic to have Americans preaching the principle of church-state separation in Iraq if, here at home, we don't practice what we preach. The American people and the issue of how to best protect religious freedom deserve a thoughtful, reasoned debate.