On “the impermeable-wall standard” of private religion and public politics

Elisabeth Sifton, daughter of Reinhold Niebuhr, senior vice president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and author of The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War, writes:

Since religious commitment is bound to affect a person’s professional, political, and public behavior, one can’t convincingly argue that it should be partitioned off as a private matter that has nothing to do with a person’s public conduct, as dogmatic secularists and atheists nowadays insist. Alas, many stout defenders of the principles of secular government, including some otherwise very smart judges, resort to this dead-end logic—keep religion private, don’t let it into public life, make the Founders’ wall between church and state into a wall between private religion and public politics. But the Founders, with their stronger grasp on what religion actually is, wisely did not make this extreme demand, although they understood perfectly well that the republic must defend against religion’s absolute claims intruding into what is necessarily the proximate, compromised life of politics.

For the unfortunate contemporary dumbing down of the church-state debate, blame must be apportioned on all sides: not just on the sclerotic pedantry you find in modern legal squabbles on the subject, but also on pious loudmouths who favor public pledges about their faith-based commitments, and on agnostics and atheists who hold a general disregard of religion in America’s modern culture and who are proud of their hostility to the life of faith. The nuanced difficulties of reconciling religious conduct with good citizenry in a secular republic, difficulties the Founders recognized from the start, will never be resolved if the impermeable-wall standard, now so favored, is used insensitively.

– “Church & State in America,” Lapham’s Quarterly (Winter 2010)


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