Survey Says: Mainline Clergy Like Church-State Separation

An interesting survey was issued recently, indicating that many members of the clergy remain strong supporters of church-state separation.

The 2009 Clergy Voices Survey, issued May 20, sampled mainline clergy on their views regarding the separation of church and state.   The findings were really rather encouraging.

The survey found that a majority (65 percent) of mainline clergy agree that the U.S. should "maintain a strict separation of church and state." Mainline clergy are more worried about public officials who are too close to religious leaders (59 percent) than about public officials who do not pay enough attention to religion (41 percent).

Additionally, the report found, "Mainline clergy believe strongly in separation of religious institutions and the state and are willing to differentiate their religious beliefs from their public policy opinions."

The survey predominately focused on same-sex marriage and found that 68 percent of the clergy asked believe that "opposing homosexual practices on theological grounds" does not equate to "opposing legal rights for gay and lesbian people."

These results are interesting because for so many years, it seems the public discourse has been dominated by fundamentalist religious leaders who oppose church-state separation. Last year, a band of clergy, prodded by the Alliance Defense Fund, went so far as to deliberately violate federal tax law by endorsing U.S. Sen. John McCain from their pulpits.

The Religious Right labored hard to make it appear that most clergy support pulpit politicking and are view the church-state wall as oppressive. In fact, while the voices that parrot this perspective are often loud, that does not mean they speak for the majority of U.S. religious leaders.

I believe the trend is with us. The American public and American clergy realize that Thomas Jefferson's church-state wall has worked well. They know it was erected to benefit both the church and the state, protecting each from the grasp of the other. Jefferson's metaphor, penned more than 200 years ago, is still potent.

It's true that at times, the Religious Right's narrow voice of exclusion has monopolized the debate. Religious Right groups have brazenly proclaimed to put forth the "Christian" perspective on various issues. We know they do not speak for all Christians – let alone all Americans. (If you doubt this, visit our friends at the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty for a perspective on church-state separation that is firmly grounded in Christianity yet radically different from what the Religious Right offers.)

The defense of church-state separation must come from many places: Christian, Jewish, secularist, etc. It should be voiced by Democrats, Republicans and independents. All are equal partners in the struggle to maintain Jefferson's vision. Yet the religious community has an especially important role to play because its clergy effectively debunks Religious Right claims that separation of church and state equals hostility toward religion.

Here's hoping these survey results empower more mainline clergy to speak out.