We the People
France Griggs Sloat
As a means of continuing education, we asked several Xavier faculty: Should they mix? Should religion have a role in government or public policy? What limitations, if any, should be imposed? At what point does it cross the line of the First Amendment ban on the establishment of a state religion?
Here we talk to Christine Anderson. You can find links to other profiles at the bottom of the page.
Associate Professor of History
From the vantage point of history, it appears religious freedom results in conflicts among religious groups, poses threats to communities of faith, and confronts individuals and religious bodies with uncomfortable choices. Yet, limiting religious freedom in a multicultural polity by creating links between religion and the state raises far graver dangers by investing a particular religious body with power over others. This does not mean we should separate our religious values from our participation in the government as citizens. Rather, we should acknowledge that public policies embody values and that our values may differ. While we cannot simply apply lessons from the past to different contemporary conditions, I offer three examples from American history to suggest questions we might ask when we think about connections between church and state.
First, it is true that many colonists were drawn here by the promise of religious freedom, but the meanings of that term were complex. For the Puritans, it was freedom for their own beliefs that would enable them to build a shining model of Puritan values. Catholics seeking refuge in Maryland, however, had been persecuted by the English in the European context of state and religious rivalries. The Maryland Act Concerning Religion guaranteed toleration to Christian immigrants to the colony in order to protect its Catholic minority. Complete religious freedom was not viewed as positive in its own right until the late 18th century. Even then it remained a radical idea.
An example of the ways religious values shaped American politics comes from the 19th-century abolitionists. In the early 1830s, white opponents of slavery were a tiny group of evangelical Protestants who believed slaveholding was a sin, and they had a moral obligation to challenge slave owners and the government’s support. The abolitionists’ unremitting attacks finally resulted in emancipation. Their moral absolutism called white society’s attention to the cruelty of slavery in a way that had not been possible before. But their religious emphasis on sin may have prevented them from engaging in discussions about the future of emancipated slaves in a racist republic.
Finally, the consequences of religious prejudice illustrate the dangers of placing government power in the service of particular religious institutions. The same 19th-century Protestants who protested slavery were often hostile to Catholics. Catholicism was attacked as an “alien” religion opposed to American individualist values. Anti-Catholicism was reflected in local government policies requiring use of the King James Bible in schools and in cities such as Cincinnati, which provided funding for “non-sectarian” Protestant charities but not for Catholic ones.
People of faith are called to bring their moral values into the public arena, but intellectual and theological differences need not translate into social conflict if we accept that complexity and variety enrich our understanding of our debates.
Thomas Kennealy, S.J.