What Does It Mean to Separate Faith and Culture?

When John G. Roberts was nominated in July 2005 to become the Chief Justice of the United States, there was a flurry of deep concern among politicians and in the major media that he was a devout Catholic. Why should this be a concern, we might ask.

Judge Roberts and his wife, both of them apparently sincere Christians, were constantly in the spotlight through this nomination process — precisely because they were Christians. Judge Roberts was asked, quite bluntly at times, if religion would get in the way of performing his duties faithfully on the Supreme Court. Would he be willing and able to keep his faith, as Peter Steinfels of The New York Times said at the time, “separate from his legal judgments”? One priest, who knew the couple well, even suggested that their faith “would affect their personal lives, but they are very professional in their work.”

I take it this means that faith, if it were allowed to seep into public responsibilities, might cloud clear thinking or muddy the waters of the wise discernment required of a Supreme Court justice or any professional in any area.

Steinfels suggests that what we are talking about these days is “a warm but conventionally contained religious faith,” a faith that must stay tightly restricted to the private sphere and must be fiercely guarded on all fronts from contaminating one’s pure, professional performance. “This dichotomy,” says Steinfels, “between the personal and the public comes naturally to a Western culture that for half a millennium has been gradually freeing areas like law, science, medicine, politics, and economics from direct oversight by religion.”

This is true, of course — but it is worth asking if law, science, medicine, politics, and economics have been better off freed from any influence of religion or people of faith? And further, are we really fretting here about “direct oversight” of religion? What in the world could that mean in our day and age? Never in American history have we had anything close to “direct oversight by religion” in any matter of public arrangement.

No, what we are really fretting about, persistently and constantly as a society in our day, is the fear that religion might have any influence at all in the things that really matter in our society. We seem gripped by fear, mortified in fact, that someone’s faith might somehow come out into the open and actually make a difference in the way one performs his or her public duty or professional performance.

How have we come to this? We are close here to living in a culture that is hell-bent on airbrushing the influence of Christian faith and conviction out of the public arena, even out of our history. What nonsense that a Christian could or should eliminate one’s deepest personal convictions from informing judgment or performance, and yet that is precisely what is suggested in these public debates.

On the very positive side of all of this, it is my deepest of convictions that Christians have a great deal to offer that is of immense value to all areas of culture and society. We actually should be turning to people of faith for answers, for insight, and wisdom. Rather we seem to be saying that people of faith should have no voice. And that’s ridiculous and damaging in the long run for our society.

We must certainly affirm the separation of church and state. That is the law of the land, and it is a very healthy principle on both sides of the equation. But when it comes to these concerns about Chief Justice Roberts, or you or me, speaking as Christians into the great issues of our day — this is not at all what was intended by the separation of church and state by our American founders. The fierce battle to completely secularize our culture is not the same thing as the protection of both church and state in the intended separation.

We can do better than this, can’t we?

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Categories: Culture, Faith

14 replies

  1. I appreciate what you’re saying, but I think when Reagan got in bed with the Religious Right, we came perilously close to ‘direct oversight by religion’. It’s dangerous when Christians start talking about God’s candidates, as if God is affiliated with a particular political party. Bush’s faith-based initiatives were a continuation of this–putting a religious mask on ultra-conservative legislation. I also fail to see any insight or wisdom in my fellow Christians forcing Creationism to be taught as a scientific possibility in public schools in some states. In short, whenever Christians have been given a chance to influence politics in the past few decades, they have created a shameful legacy that has been ‘damaging in the long run for our society’.

  2. John is a personal friend and I know he is dedicated to preserving our Constitution which of course wisely separates Church and State to protect the rights of all. I am bothered by the extreme reactions to the public display of the Ten Commandments and wonder if someone is going to notice they are posted on the Supreme Court building itself!

  3. Everyone has a right to form their own beliefs and its protected that under the constitution (1st Amendment) that it doesn’t matter what you believe. One thing that disturbs me is the term “Separation of Church and State.” Despite what people believe, it is nowhere to be found in the constitution. The Term comes from a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to Baptist Pastors in New England to assure them that the state would not take over the church (i.e. Like England did with the Church of England).

    The sad thing that has happened in our culture is that we believe this Separation of Church and state goes the way it does when it’s original intent was completely the opposite of what it’s become.

  4. I would have to agree with Peter Steinfels on this one, that a “a warm but conventionally contained religious faith” is ideal.

    At the end of the day I couldn’t care less whether someone of the State wears the clothes of the Church, clothes of the secularism, clothes of impartiality, or what have you when performing his or her duties. I only require that they speak in the language of the State. The same can be applied the other direction. When a religious leader informs people’s personal beliefs with scriptural direction I would rather he spoke in the language of the Church. Whether he is a statesmen by day and wears the clothes of the State or anything else does not matter, but keep the language to that of the Church.

    With this view I see the uproar about Judge Roberts unnecessary but not unfair. It should not be necessary to be inherently skeptical of a religious person’s capability in the political field. However, it is understandable to be apprehensive about religious convictions jumping into government without genuine governmental value. This passage from the post — “We seem gripped by fear, mortified in fact, that someone’s faith might somehow come out into the open and actually make a difference in the way one performs his or her public duty or professional performance” — seems silly to me. It implies that such a thing has not happened before and cannot happen again (or alternatively assumes that such an incidence would have no negative impact). The reason why it is even something to be feared is because it has caused actual hindrances. Scientific education is a sorrowful example, just to name a single but sizable example.

    So do the Ten Commandments inform your political positions? Great!… as long as they are universally beneficial in governing a country (ex: they create necessary order and keep the rights of all citizens in mind). I’ve no problem with backing the Ten Commandments if they can be appropriately applied in a non-religious context. Do your “deepest personal convictions” regarding the time a soul enters the body influence your legislative stances? More power to you!… if the public sector can agree that the legislative implications satisfy a need for regulation while protecting the individual’s liberties. By all means let religious concepts and opinions make themselves heard in the political community, but they need to be in the interest of government and not of the church.

  5. I am reminded of those points in history, where the Church suppressed scientific developments (is the sun or earth the center of the universe? Is the earth round or flat?), and over time were revealed to be in the wrong. Unfortunately, the negative aspect of our human tendencies lead us to focus on such isolated bad experiences blind us to the positive ways faith has influenced our world (combating slavery even today; civil rights; advocating better environmental stewardship, aid in impoverished areas, etc). Perhaps this is part of the reason why our culture has such a stigma about faith freely engaged in the public sphere. If so, my thought is that Christians are charged with continuing to deconstruct this negative view in how go about their work in whatever areas of life that may be, either in the neighborhood or the Supreme Court.

    By nature of embracing a faith in Christ, who we are is influenced and how we engage with the world is naturally based on that. Asked no questions, a person can do this in areas of public influence and not raise any questions of doubt. But it does present a challenge in John Roberts case, or any other high profile position where you are directly asked about your faith. Is it a higher good to answer ambiguously and then plow ahead in a sort of clandestine way or to answer back candidly and risk tanking your career? That’s hard to answer.

    What I don’t think Christians should do is get angry about it and become entrenched in a war-zone mentality of God vs. culture. That wastes far too much energy on conflict that could be spent becoming Christ’s aroma (2 Corinthians 2:14) that arouses curiosity and engagement. It’s been too easily done the first way rather than the latter, or not at all as people choose to disengage.

    This “aroma” therapy for engaging faith and culture is most effective when “Main Street” practices it equally as much as they demand it on Capitol Hill, Wall Street. This sort of change must occur within “me” the individual before “them” and “we/us” of the larger spheres of public life and cutlure can be affected.

  6. Very interesting dialogue. President Eaton, first I want to thank you as the primary representative leader of the the faculty and staff of SPU for the many enrichments that have come to my daughter as a student there– especially the opportunity she had recently to spend this past summer with the marginalized Dalit children in India. All of the good and noble values I see forming in my daughter come not from separating her faith into a “warm but contained faith” but from the opposite, helping her to integrate her faith with reality and have her faith transcend and inform her actions to bear upon injustice.
    As one grounded in the historical principles of Roger Williams, John Leland, and Isacc Backus, I am convinced that those thinkers who first influenced Jefferson to talk about the separation between church and state were coupling their argument with religious liberty. The two go together, primarily because no private or public person can ever really purge oneself of the values, idealogical frameworks, philosphies, and convictions they hold. To do so would result in an anemic, fractured individual, or a purely pragmatic individual with no aspirations to reach our higher nature as humans. Perhaps it is because we are pressing people who serve in public capacities to ignore or sanitize themselves from their convictions that we are seeing more cruel pragmatism, and cycnical political power games now more than ever.
    I am not afraid of a principled judge who has deep convictions, as long as I know what they are. I am alarmed by leaders who are motivated not by convictions, but by political pragmatism. If the newest judge is rightly heralded for her integration of her ethnic, gender and sociological past , as a good thing, as a “wise Latina”, should we not allow Justice Roberts to also be a fully integrated individual and herald him for what he brings from his experience? I believe is it admirable that this court is somewhat reflecting this society– even its dominant faith and lack of faith — traditions– rather than the yielding to the pressures to pretend to be benign and void of the things that have shaped these justices.
    At its best the separation clause serves to prevent manipulation of the state upon the church and the church upon the state, not sanitation of a person from the convictions and experiences which have shaped that person, and sometimes a country. So, I agree with you, President Eaton, that we need to think soberly about the rush to neuter our public officials from their faith and force upon them a warm, contained version. I want SPU to continue to press for integration of a vibrant faith with a vibrant life, not the other way around.
    Rick Church, a parent

  7. One thing that puzzles me is why “religion” is considered so different from “life experience”. The liberals questioned John Roberts on the impact his faith would have on his judgments, while at the same time praising Sotomayor for her life experience. On the other hand, conversatives praised Roberts while questioning Sotomayor. We tend to be comfortable with someone’s faith or life experience informing their judicial opinions only if their faith or life experience – these things that make up their worldview – line up with our own.

    On a side note, I would love to read more from you about the purpose and methods of education. I am an SPU alum now raising my own three sons and making decisions about their education. One of our goals is that our children would be prepared not only to make a living, but to make a difference in the world. I believe the heart of this is faith engaged in culture. I am very interested in hearing from you about what you would like to see happening in primary and secondary education – or what would help children to be prepared to come to SPU.

  8. What I think most people forget to include in the equation is that everyone has a religous belief system. Either secular, humanistic, Islamic or otherwise. People’s ethics and moral compass is influenced from somewhere.

    To think that we can live in a vacuum devoid of such influence is wrong.

    great post!
    http://www.krachunis.blogspot.com

  9. One of the main ideals of this country is that all people are free to believe and practice what they wish without interference with a governmental entity. That said, I strongly put forth that using a public office in any way to further an agenda that can be considered strictly Christian is against what this country stands for.

    I continue to be disheartened when I see presidents engage in an “official” worship service on inauguration day. It is neither the time nor the place for such a display of official “approval” of a particular religion over another. Regardless of how inclusive the service appears to be, there is still a stigma of having any kind of religious service supported by the government. And the attention over the president’s choice of regular Sunday churches was appalling. As a citizen of a religiously free country, he certainly received far more scrutiny over his selection of faith community than I would have tolerated.

    I tend to agree with those who point out that both Christian individuals and Christian organizations (be they churches or other Christian institutions) are responsible for much of the animosity that “religion” seems to attract. Christian individuals and groups have consistently demonstrated to the general populace extremist and suppressive views.

    It is unfortunate that so many vociferous Christian speakers have frightened the non-Christian population into thinking that we are going to take away their Harry Potter books and demonize women who have children out of wedlock. But it is the hand we are dealt. Activism comes in many styles – Christians who melted Christian culture into the Germanic tribes found more galvanized converts than those who legislated faith.

    The simplest, quiet way is often the best – history has shown that the truest Christians have come to God by discovery of God from within their secular world, not those that were influenced by an overly Christian culture around them. Oftentimes, amazing saints rose to spirituality despite being surrounded by an atheistic or vulgar culture.

    We should have a voice in politics, but it need not be a Christian voice. Our faith is our own and personal – we should not be performing our work as a Christian, we should be performing our work as equal citizen of this great country whose spirit is shaped by a strong faith in Christ.

    This verse speaks to me clearly about the role of Christians in the secular world/culture around them. “Give to Caesar what is due Caesar, give to God what is due God”. In this, I feel that Jesus calls us to participate in government only insomuch as to provide for the worldly needs of ourselves and those with whom we share our world. Jesus specifically chose a mission path outside of politics and away from organized government – following his example, we too should allow Caesar to act on behalf of all the people, Christian and non-Christian alike, but allow God to act on our own personal lives to the betterment of all around us.

    Recently, I heard a gentleman speak on how to evangelize our individual environments (work, home, etc.). He stated that as a Navy helicopter pilot, he was unable to do much at his workplace, but yet found an opportunity. The military rules at the time did not allow him to broach the subject with his subordinates, but could answer questions or agree to meet off-hours if a soldier asked about religion. The speaker said that he laid a Bible on his desk, open, facing out from the desk. He changed the page it was open to from time-to-time and never said a word. Something as simple and understated as an open Bible on his desk did more to evangelize his workplace than all the Christian words he could speak. Along with his strongly spiritual, yet not overtly Christian lifestyle, he helped many soldiers find comfort in God’s Word. He did not have to have a Christian voice to change his culture, he merely melted the Godly in with the secular and God found the path to these young men’s hearts.

    Working within the culture, not against it seems to be a wiser path. Speak with your heart and let God do the rest.

  10. Asking a Christian whether or not their beliefs influence their public policy decisions is like asking a homosexual if their sexual orientation influences their stance on same-sex marriage. Of course it does! Everyone is biased, religious or not. ‘Nuff said about that.

    Perhaps the irrationality of Christianity makes the secular liberals afraid that Christians in public service will favor their doctrine over their ability to discern intelligently. After all, we believe that the earth was created before the sun, in talking animals, and that God completely destroys cities that like to sin. If you think about it, we believe in a heck of a lot of crazy things, just because we are told that Bible is right, and the Bible is right because it says it’s right, and no more questions, because the Bible’s been around a lot longer than you have.

    Christians who try to think somewhat rationally are really put off by the myriad of Christians who choose to abandon logic in favor of their faith. They are the ones who protest all day about same-sex marriage and don’t really give a second blink to the problem of adultery, which is perhaps more destructive to the institution of marriage.

    I think one of the problems in our culture is everyone want everyone else to think the way they think. Jesus himself certainly got others to think like him. And we’re bent on obtaining Jesus’ persuasive abilities, while tending to disregard some of his other attributes, specifically tolerance. Let’s face it – Jesus let others humiliate him, beat him half to death, and crucify him the rest of the way to death. And today Christians scream bloody murder when a democrat has an affair. Something in that picture needs to be fixed.

  11. Justin, don’t stop there! One of the most compelling reasons to know the Bible is right is because Jesus himself quoted Scripture frequently. And it is recorded that when he appeared to his disciples on the road to Emmaus and they did not recognize him, he proceeded to tell them what was said in ALL the Scriptures concerning himself. That same technique is echoed in the story of the Ethiopian eunuch when the man asked of whom Isaiah the prophet spoke — “he was led like a sheep to the slaughter” — and Philip replied by beginning with that very scripture to tell the eunuch the good news about Jesus. Phophetic fufillment of the Scriptures centuries after the orginal prophecies is strong evidence from the ages.

    If my bias is Christ’s “bias,” so be it.

    Good point about adultery. Has it become an “acceptable” sin because it’s heterosexual?God help us.

  12. As one ex-Evangelical who lost respect for that brand of the faith when the church I was attending 12 years ago carried books by Rush Limbaugh in their library, I have been reading these posts with great interest. I have been hearsick over how the Church in America has allowed itself to be used as a political pawn, how it’s leaders have not been vocal in denunciating the venom and ignorance displayed by the fringe, how it evaluates itself by secular measure, how I cannot claim Christianity among my secular friends because there is no Christ to be seen in public Christianity. The good thing is that I have had to hone my own testimony of faith in Jesus Christ as He stands alone with love and salvation. No more “Go to church and hear the Good News”.

    Regarding John Roberts, his faith would probably not have been an issue, but for the abortion question; being Catholic is synonymous with being anti-abortion rights in the public eye. Some Christians would see that as the same thing, I realize, but it is really a political issue in this case.

    It seems that the separate of church and state will be debated without end. But if a Moslem wanted to express his faith in public office in the same way Evangelicals want to be heard, there would be no end of outrage from the Right .

    Christ said we would be persecuted for righteousness’ sake, but I don’t want to be persecuted for political ignorance and bigotry. The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindess, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control, against such there is no law. Christians have nothing to fear if they are brave enough to live as Christ Himself lived. We are acting like His Kingdom is America.

  13. I don’t think that they were asking judge John Roberts to keep his faith to the side, but I believe they are asking him to make his decision from the declaration of independence, not the Bible.

  14. A more deliberate approach that’s seen in many youth ministries today—perhaps yours—is alienation. With this approach, our homes and youth ministries become places where we seek to protect and defend ourselves and our children from the evil and offensive influence of culture by constructing “bunkers” in which to retreat and hide. To some degree, we conclude that non-Christian people, institutions, and cultural elements are hostile and dangerous to us and our faith, that we are to be separate from the world not only in attitude but in proximity, and that life is only about surviving and enduring our time on earth until Christ returns or we go to meet him in death.

    Of course, I think the first two approaches to our relationship with culture are seriously flawed. A third approach, engagement, is the one modeled and commanded by the Christ who calls us to “come and follow me.” And yes, that means right into the culture. This approach sees the culture as a mission field ripe for redemption. The place for Christ’s followers—young and old alike—is to infiltrate the world, live in the culture, and thereby exert an influence that God uses to transform individuals and institutions.

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