Here are some things I’ve been thinking about the relationship between church and state:
First — The religious diversity of these United States is dazzling! We have every possible religion here. Reflect on what it might mean for a government entity to accommodate these various faiths. No wonder government agencies try to remain neutral regarding religion.
Second — Discerning religious liberty is a messy process! We’ve been working on religious liberty ever since Roger Williams was exiled to Rhode Island. The United States Constitution, even with the First Amendment, leaves room for generous flexibility. Different Supreme Courts have tried to establish religious liberty guidelines, but issues forever remain unresolved. Can Native Americans use peyote in religious ceremonies? Must Amish buggies display reflective triangles on public highways? Can we force Jehovah’s Witnesses to practice idolatry by pledging allegiance to the flag? Must churches obey noise ordinances when their praise bands grow rambunctious? Are these religious liberty issues or issues of zoning, public safety, patriotism and drug usage?
Third — The religious community must speak with restraint and respect. We should resist assigning demonic intent to those who see issues differently. Nor should we claim our opponents are conducting a war on religion. Those who describe every skirmish as Armageddon are selectively connecting the dots. A March 2012 survey indicates that only 38 percent of Americans believe their religious liberty is being threatened.
Fourth — The religious community is wary of the state seizing too much power. We do not want the state to define or circumscribe our practices and habits. This year the U.S. government sued a church over its ordination standards. The Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in favor of the church. Kagan and Scalia, Thomas and Ginsburg on the same page — amazing!
Fifth — Religious bodies can abuse power, too. It would be dicey if religious bodies called all the shots. The church has been on the wrong side of justice and righteousness too often. Sometimes, sadly not often enough, government has been the only defender for persecuted religious minorities.
Sixth — The issue may not always be religious liberty. The U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of religion in the First Amendment, but the first sentence of the Constitution says the government should provide for the common welfare. Whether an issue is one of public policy or religious liberty may be trickier than Wallenda’s recent tightrope walk across Niagara Falls. In the matter of the HHS proposed contraceptives guidelines the government may have fallen off the tightrope; the matter is still in court. But if they’ve judged poorly, it was not out of spiteful intent.
Seventh — The religious sector doesn’t win every issue. Earlier this year Roman Catholics and United Methodists sued the state of Alabama over the harshest immigration law in the nation, claiming this law makes lawbreakers of our compassionate ministry of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked regardless of citizenship. The court ruled against us at the lower level. That’s how it sometimes goes.
Religious liberty is thriving in this nation precisely in its messiness. Roman Catholics, once deeply persecuted, have seven justices on the Supreme Court. Mormons, once deeply persecuted, are preparing to see one of their own run for president. Muslims are the most persecuted group in our nation regarding religious liberty. A mosque being built near Nashville is being held up by plaintiffs claiming that Islam is not a religion and not protected by our Constitution.
I believe Muslims will eventually be accorded the same respected status that other faiths have won as our nation continues to grasp, define and nurture religious liberty in this great nation.
Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at firstname.lastname@example.org.