Say It Loud, Say It Proud
The Religious Right doesn’t want Americans to embrace the “separation of church and state.”
These groups have spent years disparaging that concept. Their most common charge is that the phrase is not found in the Constitution. As the late church-state scholar Leo Pfeffer pointed out decades ago, that argument is fallacious. The legalistic terms “Establishment Clause” and “Free Exercise Clause” sound obscure to most people.
Thus, as Pfeffer once wrote, “[I]t was inevitable that some convenient term should come into existence to verbalize a principle so clearly and widely held by the American people….”
That term is “separation of church and state.” We should not be afraid to use it.
Yet there are some political consultants who suggest dropping the phrase. One of them, Mara Vanderslice, advised a number of Democrats last year. Vanderslice told The New York Times that she urged candidates not to talk about separation of church and state when discussing religious issues because the term raises red flags with people of faith.
This is nonsense. Most Americans, religious and non-religious, support the separation of church and state. They know that the alternative is a government that meddles in religion or, worse yet, a type of theocratic state. No sensible person wants that here.
Opposition to the phrase comes from a collection of TV preachers and “Christian nation” historical revisionists, joined by Religious Right leaders, their followers and political allies. These extremists yearn to make their narrow understanding of Christianity the law of the land for everyone – and sullying the separation of church and state is job one on their to-do list. They certainly do not speak for all people of faith.
Rather than kowtow to the fringes of the Religious Right by giving them exactly what they want – an abandonment of the phrase separation of church and state – we need to confront them and correct their mistakes by pointing out the numerous ways in which church-state separation has made America the freest nation on the planet.
People in public life should not shy away from talking about the separation of church and state. Rather, they should embrace the term enthusiastically. Church-state separation is the platform upon which our religious liberty rests. It is the only vehicle that can provide a full measure of freedom in a country with wide religious and philosophical diversity.
Across the globe, people living under the iron heel of government-imposed religion yearn for a separation of church and state. Defenders of that principle here have no reason to apologize. Rather than abandon the term, our political leaders would do well to embrace it – and ignore any advice to the contrary.