Americans sometimes evince an erroneous understanding of an idea that is in the bedrock of U.S. government—the separation of church and state. One commonly sees this misunderstanding in letters to the editor and blog comments about such controversial topics as gay marriage, abortion, and end-of-life ethics, where a particular bishop or the Catholic bishops as a group have weighed in publicly. “What right do they have to limit my rights,” someone say in response, “Don’t they know about separation of church and state?”
America has published articles on this topic, seeking to clarify what separation of church and state means. At its simplest, the concept means that the state cannot under the U.S. Constitution establish any specific religion or favor one over another. But over and over in pubiic exchanges one sees and hears the misperception that it is somehow illegal or un-American for a church or church official to express an opinion in a democracy. This is perceived as “telling non-Catholics what to do” and is expressed as a violation of church and state.
Like any other individual or institution, the Catholic church and its officials, not only have a right to participate in this democracy, but ought to participate in it, according to the church’s own teaching on the government’s legitimate role in society and the responsibilities of citizenship. And like any other individuals and non-profit institutions, the church can even establish groups to promote its teachings and opinions, as long as these do not breach the laws regarding political partisanship. Even stepping over that boundary, however, would not involve separation of state, but rather the status of the church as a non-profit with non-taxable status—a different matter entirely.
Truth is, those persons whose ideas run contrary to the church’s on any of these controversial matters ought not to whine about the active, civic participation of their opponents. Their recourse is to use the same tools of democracy—voting, public airing of their side, organizing movements to convince others of their opinions—that the church is using. They can have or be their own spokespersons. The game is one of effectiveness. Persuasive communication, weighed by an intelligent and informed public (in the best of worlds), should rule the land. By contrast, democracy is hurt most, I think, by the lobbying that takes place behind closed doors, with enormous amounts of money being parlayed behind it.
All this, too, is widely understood, of course. Still, some cannot resist firing off a cheap shot at the church for expressing its views—many of which express a majority opinion, though the public is shifting on some topics.
At its best, democracy is a public square where all can speak, assemble with others and vote. Separation of church and state does not bar churches, synagogues or mosques from that square.
May the best views win.