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.