How Should Religion Relate to American Politics?

Mars Hill Forum #62, 22 October 2001, American University, Washington, D.C.
Rob Boston

The guest of the forum was Rob Boston, assistant director of communications at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. An article about the forum, shown below, appeared in the weekly on-line publication of American University. (see here for original)

return to Past Forums page

Speakers debate how church and state intersect


In an often heated yet congenial exchange, two thinkers on campus last week debated a topic that has captivated and confounded political leaders, schools, courts, clergy, and citizens for 200 years.

While often called the constitutional amendment that mandates separation of church and state, the First Amendment doesn't. Rather, in plain terms, it requires that the state will not force the practice of any religion on its citizens, nor may it prohibit them from practicing any religion. A lot of space for overlap exists between the two, and it is in this space that the presenters spent most of their time. Rather than, "How Should Religion Relate to American Politics?" the title of the discussion, a more fitting title might have been, "How Should Religion Relate to Many Areas of Government and Public Life?"

The Reverend John Rankin, who was raised a secular humanist, was an agnostic Unitarian before he converted to a biblical faith in 1966. He hosted the discussion as part of the Mars Hill Forum series, which takes him to campuses and other venues nationwide. Rob Boston, assistant director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, joined him. The event was sponsored by Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship and the Kay Spiritual Life Center.

Rankin sees religion and politics entwined, based on the Declaration of Independence and history. Referring to the declaration's listed rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Rankin insisted that these rights are intrinsic. "Who granted them, then?" he asked. "From whom did they come?" He answered, "From the God of the Bible, and there is no other source for that in human history."

Rankin stressed this God is not based on Jesus. And, he linked God to his belief in individual freedom, the invitation to question, the power to love enemies, and the power to forgive.

Boston's presentation jumped right to particular cases. "Our question is not whether but how religion and politics should relate, because they always have and they always will."
On stem cell research for example, "religious [people] took political views," he said. They made their views known to Congress during congressional debate, and he saw no problem with that. "A diversity of opinions is a healthy relationship," he said.

But he cited a Cleveland election as an example of overextending the boundaries where church and state overlap. He spoke of a candidate running for office who asked the black churches to put his literature in their bulletins. Boston pointed out that according to IRS code, organizations that file 501C tax exemption, such as churches, are prohibited by law from endorsing candidates.

As they faced off, the men wrangled with a number of issues, such as Catholic schools receiving federal money, school vouchers, recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in class, and other issues.

Rankin asserted, "You want the schools to be secular. Yet you support Halloween, a pagan practice. I do not want that taught in schools because it violates my Christian beliefs." But Rankin feels a better job could be done to educate children about religion. "We could all do with a better understanding of Islam," he said. He urged the formation of clubs that would pursue their religious interests outside the classroom.

As an example of how slippery and ethereal the discussion could become, Boston, although he firmly believes in separation of church and state, had no difficulty with the congressional representatives lining up on the Capitol steps after the recent attacks and singing God Bless America. But, he strongly feels a seven-year-old's rights are in jeopardy because a school put God Bless America on a school marquis, and the child's parents contend their child is offended. This is "about whether we will respect the family's rights and make that seven year old comfortable in school," he said. At evening's end, it was clear that the area of overlap between church and state will remain fluid as science, the law, and the culture evolves.

return to Past Forums page