Balancing Church and State

December 14, 1984

Report Outline
An Ongoing Effort
Roots of Separation
Religious Activism
Special Focus

An Ongoing Effort

Post-Election Array of Religious Issues

Religion was the surprise issue of the 1984 presidential election campaign, and perhaps among the most divisive. It was a surprise largely because most American voters do not expect candidates for political office to campaign on religious or sectarian themes. Nor do voters expect their church officials to endorse political candidates. Yet both happened during the campaign, raising anew questions about the proper balance between church and state and between religion and politics.

The election is over but a host of church-state issues awaits court and legislative action. Others remain matters for further debate from the pulpit and in the press. Religious fundamentalists who say the nation has moved away from its traditional religious and moral values are striving to have those values sanctioned by federal and state law. Other groups, dedicated to a more complete separation of church and state, are working to ward off laws that they believe either infringe on religious liberty or entangle church and state.

At the center of the debate is the religious clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” It seems clear that the founding fathers intended to prohibit the federal government from imposing a specific set of religious beliefs on its citizens or punishing those whose beliefs differ from the majority. What is not clear is the line between accommodating religion and advancing it. The Constitution may require, in Thomas Jefferson's words, a “wall between church and state.” But religious values are not, perhaps cannot, and, in the opinion of many politicians, clergy and historians, should not be divorced from public debate on civil issues. The question then is how to mix religion and politics so they do not excessively entangle church and state or infringe on religious freedom.

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