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How Much Do We Still Care About Church-State Separation?

Elections have become increasingly unpleasant in the last decade and a half. I’ve found myself in the past six months, as the campaigns heated up, not wanting to listen to the news. And just when I thought the system of legal bribery that goes by the name “campaign finance” couldn’t shock more than it already has, we’re told that this mid-term election is the most expensive in history, topping $4 billion dollars spent to influence your vote — and most of that money isn’t coming in $20 checks from average people.

As one who shares some of the pessimism of my denomination with regard to the trajectory of the world, I shouldn’t be surprised, even when two high-profile United States Senate candidates, Ken Buck of Colorado and Christine O’Donnell of Delaware, proudly defy a principle I hold dear: the separation of church and state.

Of the things that my denomination does in the area of social justice, protecting religious liberty is the one I’m most proud of. Historically, it originated in defense of our own liberty to keep the Sabbath — a freedom that, I’m happy to say, isn’t being seriously threatened here in North America. Though I occasionally wince a little when I read some of the stuff written by denominational religious liberty leaders, which now and then sounds more like Glenn Beck than I’m comfortable with, I’m still glad we’ve got people whose job it is to defend religious liberty.

But direct threats on church-state separation from candidates for the most powerful chamber of the legislative branch of our government seems pretty serious to me. And I’ve not heard any response from our denomination.

There’s plenty of outrage out there. Do a quick Google news search on “separation of church and state” and you’ll see that secular people and religious people are worried about Buck’s and O’Donnell’s blatant disregard for church-state separation, and are especially worried about the positive response they’re getting from people demographically not unlike us.

But no press release from Seventh-day Adventists comes up.

One of the concerned commentators is Gustav Niebuhr, grandson of Reinhold and grand-nephew of H. Richard, who deplores the constitutional carelessness of public figures so close to positions of great power. Writes Niebuhr, “You know, Jefferson and Madison — political geniuses that they were — foresaw these potential problems. And they came up with a great solution. We call it separation of church and state, a short-hand for the first 16 words of the First Amendment, which provides that government does not favor a religion and that every believer shares an equal playing field when it came to exercising his/her faith. It’s worked pretty well over 200-plus years, so much so that a lot of Americans would like to see other nations adopt those principles. Places like Iraq, for example, where we have lately spent at least $1 trillion in American tax revenues trying to create a secular democracy.”

That’s pretty clear, I don’t care how thick you are.

And admittedly these candidates aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer. When Christine O’Donnell challenged her opponent, Chris Coons, to find separation of church and state in the constitution, and he came back with “‘Government shall make no establishment of religion’,” her response was, “That’s in the first amendment?” — drawing an audible gasp from the audience.

But these, like all the candidates, have lots of money behind them, and they know how to pander to the lowest denominator, which is in this case people who are so frightened of either irreligion or other religions that they’re willing to set aside the constitution’s religion clause.

I’m quite sure a press release from NARLA reiterating our long-time support of church-state separation wouldn’t suddenly steer the national debate in a new direction. But it could inform the votes of some of the million of us Adventists in the United States who say that what we want most from government is the freedom to worship according to conscience. Here’s an issue where we stand apart from much of the conservative Christian community, holding a position more thoughtful than the rest. Why not speak it proudly?

I see Seventh-day Adventists’ clarity on this issue fading, though, just when we need it most. Adventists are conservative people, and many have discovered they share other conservatives’ views: against government, taxes and a social safety-net, and in support of militarily-defined patriotism and traditional views on issues like homosexuality and abortion. That the politicians who promote these things may not necessarily uphold what we used to insist is a fragile religious freedom doesn’t seem as clear to us as it once was. (The one time in recent years that I preached about religious liberty and church-state separation, a couple of angry church members accused me of engaging in politics from the pulpit.) Not unlike our theology, where our distinctives often seem clearer to us than basic Christianity, those big ideals having to do with freedom and social justice have gone out of focus, too. As we’ve tried to justify embracing conservative social issues, we’ve lost some of our clarity about religious liberty.

But then, we were told it wouldn’t last forever. I just didn’t think we’d let it go down without a fight.

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