‘A Fundamental Principle’: HHS Secretary Sebelius Affirms Church-State Separation

It’s always good to hear a prominent official in government acknowledge the separation of church and state as a 'fundamental principle of our democracy.'

Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, spoke on Friday to graduates of Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute – despite efforts to by ultra-conservatives to gag her.  

Members of the Catholic far right were outraged that Sebelius, a Catholic and and advocate of  reproductive rights, would be invited to speak at a Catholic university. But school officials believed that a high-ranking member of the Obama administration’s cabinet might have something valuable to say to the graduates and refused to rescind the invitation. (Among those complaining was Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., who called the invitation to Sebelius "shocking.")

Sebelius had just started her speech when three protestors stood up and started yelling. This was pretty much inevitable, and the men were soon removed from the room. Sebelius continued with her remarks.

Much of what she said was typical of commencement addresses, including an exhortation to graduates to pursue public service and work for the common good while not being afraid to take on some risks and challenges.

Sebelius then shifted into a different area.

“When I was in junior high, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was running for president,” Sebelius said. “I wasn’t old enough to vote, but it was the first national campaign I really remember. Some of then-Senator Kennedy’s opponents attacked him for his religion, suggesting that electing the first Catholic president would undermine the separation of church and state, a fundamental principle of our democracy. The furor grew so loud that Kennedy chose to deliver a speech about his beliefs just seven weeks before the election.”

Sebelius continued, “In that talk to Protestant ministers, Kennedy talked about his vision of religion and the public square, and said he believed in an America, and I quote, ‘where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials – and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against us all.’”

She added, “Kennedy was elected president on November 8, 1960. And more than 50 years later, that conversation, about the intersection of our nation’s long tradition of religious freedom with policy decisions that affect the general public, continues. Contributing to these debates will require more than just the quantitative skills you have learned at Georgetown. It will also require the ethical skills you have honed – the ability to weigh different views, see issues from other points of view, and in the end, follow your own moral compass.”

There are a couple of things to say about this.

First, it’s always good to hear a prominent official in government acknowledge the separation of church and state as a “fundamental principle of our democracy.” Religious Right leaders have created an entire cottage industry to disparage the very idea of church-state separation as un-historical and un-American, and, sadly, some political leaders agree with them. It’s good to see Sebelius set them right.

Second, Sebelius reminds us of the importance of JFK’s words that no church has the right to expect government to embrace, promote and impose its theology. I’d like to think that this portion of the speech was a subtle reminder to the Catholic bishops (and people like former presidential candidate Rick Santorum), who seem to think the federal government should be the enforcer of their dogma.

Finally, Sebelius’ call to “follow your own moral compass” on these issues is crucial. Note that she didn’t say “religious compass.” For many, morals do spring from religion – but not for all. More importantly, those who do have a faith may find it necessary from time to time to dissent from denominational teachings – especially when you’re a political leader determining policy for 300 million people representing every imaginable perspective about religion.

Sebelius invoked the words of John F. Kennedy, our nation’s only Catholic president, to make the point that government is not, and cannot be, the vehicle to enforce religious rules. The Catholic bishops may not like what she said, but I suspect millions of Americans do.

I’m glad Sebelius wasn’t shouted down by extremists and theocrats who fear what she had to say.