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President Bush's "Third Awakening" and the Mixing of Church and State: The Responses He Has Provoked From Believers, As Well as Non-Believers


Thursday, Sep. 21, 2006

In politics, as in science, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That is especially true when the issue is religion.

Last week, President Bush declared his belief that there has been a "Third Awakening" of religious devotion in the United States, since 9/11. His statement is not a little ironic. One has to wonder whether he is actually seeing an awakening simply because the people he surrounds himself with are intensely religious. After all, it is beyond dispute that this Administration has united itself and its causes with conservative Christians, as I have documented in previous columns such as this one.

President Bush's choice of friends and allies isn't itself problematic. But what is highly problematic is his pronounced tendency to mix church and state. His Department of Justice aggressively gets involved in local land use disputes, on the side of churches that already enjoy stunning legal privileges in these matters, based on Congress' passage of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). (I've recently discussed RLUIPA in detail in this column). His Administration has pushed to expand funding for faith-based social services programs - leading to the anomalous result that government money is used to back what amounts to religious inculcation of those receiving government-funded social services. And the Administration has, as well, backed such Establishment Clause violations as the public display of the Ten Commandments in courthouses.

In short, it's obvious to anyone paying attention that, in the Bush Administration, a certain cadre of Christians and their viewpoints have found a privileged political position.

But the beauty of the American system is that when one group ascends to the pinnacle of power, there is always some group or individual that will bring them down a peg. (Americans perennially love the underdog -- in the movies, in sports, and in life. And that means they often come to despise those preening in their power.)

Power in America is never seen as the rightful property of any one viewpoint, religion, or group; rather, it is always in play. That's as it should be - and it's one reason why groups whose values are not reflected by conservative Christians have begun to partake in a backlash against the Administration's predations on the Establishment Clause.

The Response: Stressing Secular Viewpoints and Interests

For example, former Nevada State Senator and law professor Lori Lipman Brown and the Secular Coalition for America have responded to the current power grab by conservative Christians with the web-based Secular Scorecard for the Senate and Secular Scorecard for the House. To those who would claim that this is a "Christian country," the Secular Coalition points out that "Freedom of Conscience, including religious freedom, is a fundamental American value as evidenced by the fact that this is the first freedom protected in the Bill of Rights," and argues that, "Freedom of conscience is best guaranteed by protecting and strengthening the secular character of our government. Religious tolerance, a necessary product of this freedom, must be extended to people of all religions and to those without religious beliefs."

This position, of course, is a reaction -- one necessitated by the overreaching of those now in power. In this era, many issues have been wrongly tagged as primarily religious issues, when they are really public policy issues -- for example, the issues of abortion and stem cell research. The result is that if one is opposed to abortion, one is identified as religious. If one is not opposed to abortion, one is depicted as anti-religious, or (at best) secular.

This is an unfortunate and misleading dichotomy.

The True Debate: Largely Among Believers, Not Between Believers and Non-Believers

The debate in the United States is not really between believers and secularists, but rather between believers and believers, with some nonbelievers in the mix.

Baylor University recently conducted a poll on religious belief, and found that fully 90% of Americans are religious believers (whether or not they attend religious services). That is truly remarkable. It is also illuminating -- it necessarily means that religious believers cover the entire political spectrum. Religious believers both oppose and support abortion rights. Religious believers both oppose and support stem cell research.

These insights are bolstered by the recently released 2500-person study by the Center for American Values that concluded that there is no partisan "God gap." It appears to be a myth there is a unified religious community tending in either political direction. Rather, there are religious believers open to messages from both political parties.

On Establishment Clause issues too, religious believers plainly are divided. Some religious believers believe that government must be run by Christian principles. Rep. (and aspiring Senator) Katherine Harris's recent statements in Florida follow this path. But many other religious believers (I count myself among them) believe that the separation of church and state is crucial to liberty, so that government should be run to achieve the greatest public good. After all, Establishment Clause violations often bring with them Free Exercise violations too. When one religion becomes the government's de facto creed, others are inevitably disadvantaged and even silenced.

Again, this dispute is among religious believers - not between believers and non-believers. This reality means that spinning the disestablishment of religion as anti-Christian or pro-Christian is just nonsensical. The point of view depends on the particular Christian voicing it, and devout Christians may be found on both sides of the issue.

Why the Secular Coalition May Be Making a Mistake to So Identify Itself

I applaud the Secular Coalition for its scorecards - anything that makes it easier to track what our elected representatives are actually doing there in Washington is a giant step forward in my book. But I think they have sold themselves short by categorizing their project as "secular." Preserving the separation of church and state isn't a secular goal. Indeed, one of its great benefits is to allow religions to thrive and breathe, free of state inference or coercion. Again, the Free Exercise Clause actually needs the support of a robust Establishment Clause to preserve ordered religious liberty.

It is an empirical reality that believers, like nonbelievers, have a range of views on abortion, stem cell research, and other key issues. That means many believers will find the "secular" scorecards not only helpful, but in line with their own values.

So instead of falling for the trap set by the conservative Christians (who cleverly label every entity that disagrees with them "secular," and then demonize secularism), Brown would have been better to choose a label that simply takes her scorecards out of this particular culture war. I'd like to see, for instance, the Enlightened Scorecard (hearkening back to Enlightenment ideals), or the What Your Representatives Did on the Hot Button Issues Scorecard.

Finally, even if there is a Great Awakening, as the President seems to believe, it is actually not necessarily to the benefit of those religious groups who currently wield political power. It may well be that it is the millions of marginalized and politically somnolent believers under this current regime who are awakening, and, therefore, that the pendulum is actually swinging back toward an interest in the larger public good, and away from the claim of "one true religion.". That is the "awakening" this country needs at this crucial point in history.

Marci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University. An archive of her columns on church/state issues - as well as other topics -- can be found on this site. Her email address is Professor Hamilton's most recent work is God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005).

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