God and Government In Indiana: Lessons From An Evening Of Civil Discourse

On July 22, the Indiana Chapter of Americans United held a “God and Government” event, a panel of faith leaders discussing church-state issues.

AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, himself a United Church of Christ minister, introduced the event. It was a chance to look at our issues specifically from the perspective of people of faith. In addition to Barry, the panel included Archpriest Stevan Bauman, senior priest at Joy of All Who Sorrow Orthodox Christian Church; Imam Michael “Mikal” Saahir of the Nur-Allah Islamic Center and director of the Clara Muhammad Weekend School; David Sklar, Jewish Community Relations Council’s director of government affairs and the Rev. Brent Wright, pastor of Broad Ripple United Methodist Church

Our chapter has been trying to engage the local faith community for years with varying degrees of success. We’ve put on programs we hoped would appeal to people of faith, but many people in the local faith community regarded us with suspicion. They thought our issues weren’t important to them, or had the mistaken notion that AU was anti-religious. This event was different.

Initially, I wanted to include panelists from as many faiths as possible, but in order to ensure that all of the panelists had adequate time to express themselves, we needed to limit the number of participants. We couldn’t include everyone, so we tried to recruit panelists from a diverse range of mainstream faith traditions. Most of the people I reached out to were enthusiastic and supportive even if they weren’t available. We were fortunate to pull in a combination of people I’ve met with over the years and people who were referred to us and ended up with a fantastic group of panelists.

I served as a moderator, asking questions to get the panelists talking and trying to keep the program moving. One of my goals was to speak as little as possible, allowing the panelists to do the talking. The panelists all seemed to feel they had adequate time to express themselves, and the audience was interested in what the panelists had to say. We were able to cover more topics than I’d thought, even taking some questions from the audience

Participants in the AU Indiana Chapter's interfaith discussion

There were some minor disagreements during the panel. One panelist referred to secularism as a religion, and people marrying their pets was mentioned. Fear of the government using separation of church and state as a reason to stamp out religion was also discussed. People in AU, of course, see separation of church and state as a way to protect religious groups from the government. But the program moved along, and there was much common ground.

The observations by the panelists were interesting and included some things I hadn’t considered. All the panelists had reasons to dislike the religious freedom law, either out of concern for the LGBT community – a frequent target of discrimination – or out of fear that they themselves could be discriminated against.

Rev. Wright discussed churches using the ban on partisan politicking as an excuse not to discuss issues, even though taking a stand on issues is allowed. Imam Saahir talked about being a minority faith. David Sklar echoed these sentiments and talked about the history of the Jewish community in the United States and how they grew to appreciate separation of church and state. Father Stevan talked about the Christian Orthodox concept of synergy between church and state and the necessity of coexisting with other faiths in this country. One of his fears was less about government limiting religion and more about society looking down on people of faith. Questions from the audience started conversations on when government does have a responsibility to limit a church actions, such as when there is violence or fraud.

 After the panel had ended, someone said to me that before this event he thought AU was “against religion” but now he understood what we were about. Different groups may disagree on how church and state should be separated, and we may disagree on specific church-state issues, but when we have a nice calm conversation where we all stop and listen to each other, it’s clear that we all benefit from keeping church and state separate.

Matthew Barron serves on the steering committee of the Indiana Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.