January 2009 Church & State | Editorial

How will President Barack Obama interpret the separation of church and state?

A clue can perhaps be found in a speech he delivered on June 28, 2006, at a Call to Renewal conference.

Obama was not a declared candidate for president at the time and had yet to serve a full two years in the Senate. He spoke with candor about the role of religion in politics and public life, striking a note that many advocates of church-state separation will find heartening.

“Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation and a nation of non-believers,” Obama said.

The Illinois senator proceeded to point out that there is great diversity even among Christian denominations in America.

“And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools?” Obama asked. “Would we go with James Dobson’s, or Al Sharpton’s? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy?”

But perhaps most interestingly, Obama went on to say that, despite his strong personal religious beliefs, he has no problem insisting that public policy must be based on secular rationales.

“Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values,” said Obama. “It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.”

This statement is significant. It represents a strong repudiation of the Religious Right’s perspective. In fact, James Dobson of Focus on the Family was so infuriated by the remark that earlier this year he attacked Obama for it, saying it represents a “fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution.”

It’s safe to assume that Obama, who has taught constitutional law, knows more about the Constitution than Dobson, a child psychologist and radio counselor. In this case, Obama’s interpretation is spot on: laws in America should never be based on religion.

It is here that we see the potential for a sharp break from the practices of the past eight years. When confronted with controversies over issues such as abortion, stem-cell research and sex education, President George W. Bush defaulted to the fundamentalist religious groups that were his most supportive allies. The views of the scientific community were either ignored or recast to make them conform to the desires of Bush’s theocracy-minded fan base.

This wasn’t just another Bush bad habit; it affected public policy. Seeking to impose their perspective on marriage on everyone, Religious Right groups and the Catholic hierarchy pointed to the Bible and papal decrees, as if those specific religious pronouncements should be the basis on what U.S. law ought to say.

Under Bush, the country moved away from the idea that secular law is a positive feature. In fact, “secular” became a dirty word among right-wing media commentators who were quick to applaud marriages of church and state – as long as they approved of the religion, of course.

Obama has an opportunity to correct this misperception. And, based on his comments during that 2006 speech, it appears he understands why he should.

More importantly, the 44th president has a chance to make a real difference in the federal courts. Many Bush judicial appointees were hostile to church-state separation. Appointed for life, these judges can continue to wreak havoc long after Bush has retired to Texas. Obama can bring some much-needed balance to the federal bench.

No politician is perfect, and Americans United has always been careful to avoid falling into the trap of believing that all of our problems can be solved through an election. Electoral politics is not our purpose. AU’s job is to educate Americans about the importance of church-state separation as a fundamental principle of American life and to advocate for that cause in the courts, in Congress, at the White House, in state legislatures and in the media.

But with the Bush years ending, we can’t help but be optimistic. It isn’t just a matter of believing that things have to get better because they couldn’t get any worse. Rather, we’re hopeful that America has elected a president who understands that the promise of America is not to be tampered with lightly; a man who knows what religious freedom means and grasps why it can’t exist without the separation of church and state.

In those instances where we don’t see eye to eye – such as Obama’s advocacy of the “faith-based” initiative – we are more than happy for opportunities to educate and try to persuade.

The wall of separation between church and state has taken a lot of battering over the past eight years. We look forward to the opportunity to patch up some of those holes.