Katherine Harris on God and Politics

This piece was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on September 4, 2006. It also headlined the religion section of UPI’s homepage.

Thanks to Judy Brooks for alerting me to Katherine Harris’ views on the separation of church and state.


On August 24th The Florida Baptist Witness published an interview with Katherine Harris, the former Florida Secretary of State (she of the butterfly ballot and dangling chad). Now, she is a member of the United States House of Representatives, and is a candidate in this week’s primary election for the Senate.

The interview is worth reading for its presentation of Ms. Harris as a startlingly inarticulate religious fanatic. Contained in Rep. Harris’ musings, as recorded by the Witness are dozens of ideological and rhetorical blunders that are tempting fodder for a religiously progressive pontificator, but none is so inviting as her suggestion that the separation of church and state is a lie. When asked about the role of people of faith in government she began her reply as follows:

The Bible says we are to be salt and light. And salt and light means not just in the church and not just as a teacher or as a pastor or a banker or a lawyer, but in government and we have to have elected officials in government and we have to have the faithful in government and over time, that lie we have been told, the separation of church and state, people have internalized, thinking that they needed to avoid politics and that is so wrong because God is the one who chooses our rulers.

It is ironic that, while the Congresswoman holds the separation of church and state in low esteem, it is precisely this ordering of American life that allows Katherine Harris to hold public office.

“The separation of church and state” is a handy bit of Jeffersonian word-smithery that takes both religious clauses of the First Amendment and presents them in a nice rhetorical package. It reminds us that America is meant to be a place where people of any faith, no faith, or an amalgamation of faiths are welcome. Even if, as Katherine Harris suggests, Divine Providence does play a role in the selection of American leaders (as a Calvinist, I’m probably supposed to believe this too, but I cannot fight back the suspicion that God has better things to do), the separation of church and state affirms that God is not limited to the members of a particular church when assigning jobs in government.

Almost all of our nation’s founding fathers were members of Protestant denominations we now call mainline. More than half were Episcopalians, a good number were Presbyterians and Congregationalists, and a small number were members of a handful of other churches. Had the founding fathers established religion, they almost certainly would have chosen one of the religious traditions that has evolved into liberal Protestantism. If that had happened, only people like me could hold public office. Katherine Harris would hate that.

Katherine Harris was raised in the Presbyterian Church of America and she currently attends a Calvary Chapel in Sarasota. The Presbyterian Church in America was founded in 1973 as a conservative separatist Presbyterian body; the Calvary Chapel movement is a loose affiliation of like-minded independent churches that began in the sixties. Neither denomination would have been established by the founding fathers. Without the separation of church and state, Katherine Harris would have to convert to hold office.

Katherine Harris’ failure to appreciate the benefits of the separation of church and state is fairly common among members of the Religious Right. When, in American public life, the First Amendment is enforced such that prayer and the teaching of creationism is barred from public schools, whenever there is a move to strike “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, or “in God we trust” from our coins, there is great public hand wringing over the godless, liberal attacks on American people of faith, and about the secularization of our nation which might cause God Almighty to revoke divine favor.

Who more than the Religious Right should cherish the separation of church and state with greater affection? Much of the movement’s power base is in large, recently established, independent congregations who would have no influence if the founding fathers had established religion.

As it is, groups like Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition should be making tithes to organizations like the ACLU and People for the American Way. Those who safeguard the separation of church and state preserve the possibility that a person of any religious background can hold public office, even if your name is Katherine Harris, you are an Evangelical Christian, and you want to be the next Junior Senator from Florida.

8 thoughts on “Katherine Harris on God and Politics

  1. I must mention just one glaring error in your message:

    Most of the “founding fathers” fit into several non-mainstream categories for religious beliefs..
    ranging from Atheism to Agnosticism, to Deism.

    http://www.sullivan-county.com/news/ffnc/

    Several quotes from the “founding fathers” regarding religion. Google can provide far more proof, as well.

  2. Dear Eric Blade,

    Thanks for the post. I don’t disagree, except to say that when one speaks of the “founding fathers” (as indeed, when one speaks of me) one can make a distinction between religious belief and religious affiliation. As far as I know, all of the founding fathers were at least nominally communicants in some kind of Christian church. Even the famously Diest Jefferson was an Episcopalian, though I suspect he seldom warmed a pew.

    Regards,

    Ben

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  4. Based on her comments on separation of church and state, it is apparent that Ms. Harris has little or no understanding of history. The plain fact is, separation of church and state was an effort to protect churches, not the state — 20th- and 21st-century local and state statutes, and for that matter, ACLU suits, notwithstanding.

    Here’s the point: The framers of the Constitution were fully aware of the abuses of a state church. Yes, it was a matter of various separatist communities in New England from the earliest days. But more to the point, the England of the time of the American Revolution was arguably the most liberal place on the planet in terms of religious freedom. You could be a believer, or an agnostic, or a nonbeliever (admittedly you kept quiet about it) or a jew.
    Except for one thing.

    The Church of England was the church of the land, and everyone was legally a member from birth, and everyone paid a stipend into the church. Other posters correct me if I’m wrong, but to this day I believe the government in the UK underwrites a tax-supported stipend to the Church of England.

    The situation certianly prevails in much of Europe. In Norway, for instance, where data on church attendance of any kind suggests most of the population are non-attenders, if not non-believers, the Lutheran Church is the Church of Norway, and is supported by the national government. That means public tax dollars, whether the athiests like it or not.

    Bottom line, folks, be glad we don’t have a national church — even if you are disgusted, as I am, by TV preachers and their antics; by just plain dumb local, state and national laws (creationism as science; restrictive fiats on stem cell research) as much as by antics of outfits like the ACLU — is the republic really threatened by a creche on the courthouse lawn?

  5. Bill,

    Thanks for the post. In reply to your last question, the Republic is in no way threatened by a creche on the courthouse lawn, so long as it is not threatened by a Menora or a call to prayer at Eid. Personally, I welcome public religious expression so long as all religious traditions are given equal access to the public forum.

    Ben

  6. I agree with Katherine Harris’s position in the culture war. I would like to cite Gertrude Himmelfarb’s book titled The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (1995) which gives data about the soaring rate of illegitimate births and crime in England and the United States since the 1960s.

    The drawback of separation of church and state is that it gives a free ride to humanists, who think religion is wrong and who do not think divorce and sex between unmarried consenting adults is immoral. In private religious schools, for example, children are taught that humanism is irrational and bad for society. In public schools children are not taught this.

    It is certainly un-American for the government to prefer one religion to another. However, this does not mean the government should not prefer religion to humanism by legislating against abortion, pornography, and drugs.

    There are many who advocate gay marriage because they are concerned with the welfare of gays and their children. However, there are many who are against religion. I would like to ask advocates of gay marriage which of the following propositions they find most hateful: 1) Gays should not be allowed to marry. 2) Sex outside of marriage is a sin. My guess is that their opposition to family values is more important to them than their concern for the civil rights of gays.

    I am proud to say that the United Press International just published my critique of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomena at http://www.religionandspiritualityforum.com/view.php?StoryID=20060922-085307-7779r

  7. David:

    Some thoughts.
    1. I’ve not read Himmelfarb’s book, but it seems like the illegitmate birtrate is a rather narrow matrix with wich to judge the moral progress of society over the last forty years. We’ve also made great strides in race relations and in literacy and (in the US and the UK anyway) the fight against poverty.
    2. For better or for worse, humanism is much more than an affirmation that consenting, unmarried adults may find comfort in each other’s beds, or that married adults may terminate marriage.
    3. To leagalize abortion, pornography and drugs is not not establish humanism. I’m a very devout Presbyterian Chrsitian, and I favor the keeping abortion legal (though I’ve never had one), I belive pornography that depicts sex acts between consenting adults should be legal (though I’m not a consumer of pornography), and I think that drugs should be treated as a public health issue rather than a crimial offnese (though I’ve never used illegal drugs, unless you count underage use of alchohol and tobacco).
    4. I’m not ready to pass judgment on those who agree with me on extending the priviledge of marriage to gays and lesbians. All I know is that a lot of very devout souls feel joyful at the prospect of same sex marriage.

    Regards,

    Ben

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