J. Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee argues on the Huffington Post that the principle of separation of church and state does not outright ban religion from playing some role in politics, but rather provides citizens the comfort of knowing government will not push religion on them; that government will remain neutral on the subject.

The First Amendment requires, and we should be happy to embrace, a “secular” government in the sense that it is prohibited from promoting religion or taking sides in religious disputes, favoring one over another. It should and must be neutral toward religion.

A secular government does not mean it is hostile to religion. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The institutional separation of church and state does not mean the segregation of religion from politics nor does it strip the right of people of faith to speak forcefully in the public square. It means only that government cannot pass laws that have a primary purpose or effect that advances religion. Religious speech in the public square and even some government venues is commonplace. Examples abound. One need only to look at Tuesday’s planned Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service. The president, vice president, dignitaries and Americans of diverse faiths will gather to celebrate the inauguration through prayer, readings and musical performances. And at the inauguration itself, an invocation and benediction will be offered. That doesn’t sound like religion is getting short shrift or that the public square is naked. Actually, it is dressed to the nines.

Walker is correct: secularism allows, and one could argue encourages, people to promote and defend their religious or other views in the public square. It also allows elected officials who are religious to be guided in their profession by their religious beliefs. Barring them from doing so would be both immoral and impractical. In this way, secularism is not hostile towards religion.

Yet few people seem to realize that the lack of separation between religion and politics poses a threat to the institutional separation of church and state. If lawmakers are making policy decisions based on their religious beliefs — especially as often as they do in these highly religious United States — then government is not truly secular. In this way, I think it’s fair to say that secularism is unfriendly towards religion.

To be clear, I do not think there is a problem with the lack of separation between religion and politics. As I said, it would be both immoral and impractical to ask our elected officials to leave their religious beliefs at their office door each morning. Rather, I think there is a problem with elected officials not realizing that making decisions based on religion is not necessarily wise. 

All of that aside, Walker goes on to make an important point which is not often heard. 

Yes, our culture can be crude and some people are indifferent or hostile to religion. But the answer is not to malign the separation of church and state, which would do away with religious freedom and give government the job of promoting religion. Jefferson’s radical Virginia statute created a vital marketplace for religion that must be based on voluntary belief, not government assistance. It is for us — people of faith and religious institutions, like the church — to take up the task of making our religion winsome to the world and count on government to do no more than to protect our right to do so.

In other words: those concerned with the fact that religion has taken a beating in the public square the last ten years (say, due to the New Atheists) should not attack seperation of church and state. They should try to defend their religious beliefs. 

Good luck. 

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