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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Religion and the public square

Making straight the wall of separation

It’s that time of year when we open our newspapers to read about clusters of decisions coming out of the U.S. Supreme Court on the separation of church and state. Some of these decisions may seem confusing and others contradictory. What are we as citizens and Lutheran Christians to make of rulings that in one decision affirms a Ten Commandments display and another that orders a similar display’s removal?

Jesus urges his followers to be “wise as serpents, and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). In today’s culture wars it’s wise of us to study contemporary issues with faithful eyes and discerning hearts or we may be led down any flag- or Bible-strewn path. Ignorance about religion in the public square is no longer bliss but dangerous.

First of all, it helps to imagine the Supreme Court justices as engineers tasked by the U.S. Constitution with upholding a metaphoric “wall of separation.” The Constitution constructs such a wall held up on opposite sides by the pressure from opposing interests.

In determining a way out of the “establishment of religion” versus “dissenter protection” dilemma of the times, James Madison—and Thomas Jefferson before him—worked to construct clauses in the Constitution that both protected religious free expression from governmental interference and protected the rights of citizens not of the dominant faith from a government sanctioning religion.

The Madison solution was this: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof.” These two clauses, called the “establishment” and “free exercise” clauses, push against each other to buttress the wall of separation. The Supreme Court works to straighten the wall should it topple toward either side.

The framers of the Constitution wanted to make clear that the wall wasn’t between “religion” and state but between “church” and state. They saw value in religion and its role in moral development and national identity.


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December issue

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