Religious expression on public property
A book was published in April 2007 which reflects almost a half century of reflection and study on my part concerning an issue that matters deeply to me as an American Christian deeply committed to the Baptist faith tradition. The issue is religious freedom, and the book is The Divided States of America? What Liberals AND Conservatives Are Missing in the God-and-Country Shouting Match!
One issue discussed in the book that has generated considerable interest and response is my attempt to identify and analyze three major perspectives, or models, regarding religious expression in the public square in American society.
First, there are those Americans, particularly those on the left, who have adopted a position of avoidance. They assert that things pertaining to religion have no place in the public square. They oppose manger scenes or other religious displays on government property, such as courthouse lawns, and believe students’ rights to exercise their faith should be restricted in the school house, making public grounds “religion free zones.” They also believe that religiously informed perspectives on public policy issues are somehow disqualified from consideration because of a twisted, inaccurate understanding of church and state.
At the other extreme is the neo-establishment or acknowledgment position. It would permit tax-funded religious displays on government property, allowing the state to favor the majority religion over the rights of other people of faith or of no faith. This position encourages the government to enable the proponents of the majority faith, to the extent that teachers would be permitted to lead in religious exercises during the school day.
A third position, which is more reasonable, and more importantly, more constitutional, and even more importantly, more Baptistic, is the accommodation position. This position allows student-led (voluntary) expressions of faith and the placement of manger scenes, Ten Commandments displays, or other religious structures on government property, as long as they are privately funded and no religious group in the community is excluded from the right to display their symbols.
If a local group of Christians wants to have a manger scene on a courthouse lawn during the Christmas holidays and they fund the display, the government should accommodate it by providing police protection and lighting. But it also would provide the same accommodation to a Muslim display during Ramadan or a Jewish display during Hanukkah if requested by local citizens to do so and the citizens of these faiths fund and provide the appropriate display.
It is the people’s courthouse lawn. The public should accommodate maximal expression of religious and non-religious views, without the government displaying favor or disfavor to any position. If we’re going to have a democracy, then the government should maximally accommodate people’s right to express their views, according to the dictates of their consciences. The government’s role is not to be a cheerleader for one faith, but to be a judicial umpire seeking to guarantee a level playing field for all Americans.
This third model, known as accommodation, or “principled pluralism,” most completely fulfills the aspirations of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution’s glorious First Amendment religious freedom guarantees.
Most Americans do not want government-sponsored or government-established religion. Most Americans of religious faith know intuitively that government-favored or government-sponsored religion is like being hugged by a python—it squeezes the vitality and the life out of religious faith.
Neither do most Americans want “supreme secularism” with its censorship of religious faith and discrimination against religious views in the public square.
“Principled pluralism,” with its accommodation and respect for all faiths, is most in accord with our founding ideals and aspirations, and when offered the model, a substantial majority of Americans embrace it enthusiastically.
As Senator Joseph Lieberman noted in the foreword to The Divided States of America? “The United States is a faith-based institution. You see it right at the beginning in the first American document, the Declaration of Independence, where our Founders said they were forming their new government to ‘secure’ the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which were (and are) the ‘endowment’ of our ‘Creator.’”
Senator Lieberman goes on to conclude that in a nation as religious as America, where nearly two out of three Americans say religion is “very important” in their lives, the attempt to “separate America and its people from their faith in God and the values it engenders” is both “an unnatural and unnecessary act.”
Senator Lieberman, as The Divided States of America? makes clear, is absolutely right.
Click here (PDF, 468K) to view a comparison between the Avoidance, Accommodation, and Acknowledgment positions on the church/state relationship.