Monday September 24, 2012

When the topic of church-state separation comes up, as it invariably does in an election year, the argument is made that heathen government forces are attempting to squelch religion. In reality, this separation is good for both church and state, as our Founding Fathers knew.

In a conference call last week with fellow evangelicals, Republican Texas Governor and malaprop-prone presidential candidate Rick Perry called church-state separation a Satan-fueled myth and said our founders relied on the message of God and Jesus Christ in building our government system. That separation is not a myth and it is clear the our Founders, who knew well that a state aligned with a favored church is a recipe for the religious persecution of those in unfavored churches, wanted to avoid the volatile mix of church and state. We see that mix today all over the Middle East.

Earlier this month in New York City, the Reverend John Farren crossed that line when he printed in the church bulletin a letter by six former ambassadors to the Vatican urging the election of Mitt Romney because of his opposition to abortion, gay marriage and federal coverage of the purchase of contraceptive devices. The clergyman also violated the provision of U.S. tax law prohibiting the endorsement of candidates by churches, which receive an exemption on taxes for doing so. After receiving a petition containing more than 20,000 signatures protesting Reverend Farren’s actions, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan issued an apology and reiterated that his churches should not be in the business of political endorsements.

The Catholic Church in Massachusetts often pushes the envelope on this separation. Its hierarchy was actively involved in opposition to the institution of gay marriage in Massachusetts -- even though, thanks to the separation of church and state, the state can make no law telling the church who it must allow to marry. Church leaders have also been vocal in their opposition to Obamacare -- even though it has and will benefit many of their poor and middle class parishioners.

The merging of church and state in countries in and around the Middle East has fueled the ugliest of violence. The small but thriving Christian population in Iraq has been all but driven out since the U.S. invasion unleashed intolerant Islamic forces. This has not happened in the United States and won’t as long we continue to respect all religions while favoring none.

Mr. Perry’s assertion last week that Presi dent Obama and his "cronies" in Washing ton are trying to "remove any trace of religion from American life" is a scare tactic and as preposterous as the annual hysteria over the non-existent "war on Christmas." Churches are in fact encouraged to participate in the electoral process, and many do in the form of voter registration drives in election years. It’s politics they must avoid.

In America, government stays out of the business of churches and churches stay out of the business of government. As part of the bargain, churches enjoy tax-free status. It’s a good deal. It would be dangerous for all if it were to be broken.