Hedging our Best

Michael Metzger

Naturally concerned.
This past week, Loudoun County High School (Maryland) brought in comedian Keith Deltano to plug sexual abstinence at a school assembly. The ACLU urged school officials to ensure that Deltano didn’t cross church-state lines since he happens to be a Christian. Virginia ACLU director Kent Willis was “naturally concerned that the religious views of the speaker… will seep into the presentation.”

Naturally. Faith is toxic waste. What a relief to know that Deltano never mentioned his faith. No lives were lost. The only loss was Deltano’s claim to be “very clear on the separation of church and state.” If omitting any reference to religion is how he imagines the wall separating church and state, Deltano – like most Americans – is not very clear on this issue.1 The “wall” metaphor was originally introduced to protect a garden from weeds, not for preventing an oil spill. We have it backwards today.

For two thousand years Christians have differentiated between church and civil government.2 Augustine’s two cities and Martin Luther’s “two kingdoms” recognized church and government as two different domains. Both had a proper function, but they imagined the church as a garden and the state as a wilderness. The “wall” was to keep government weeds from encroaching on the garden.3 The Anglican clergyman Richard Hooker promoted this wall in the 1590s for the same reason – to keep the entangling weeds out of the church. A half century later, dissenter Roger Williams (Rhode Island) argued that the wall beat back the weeds. He called for a “hedge or wall of separation between the Garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”4

In the Presidential election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson responded to attacks that he held unorthodox religious views by assuring the Danbury Baptist Association that he was no enemy of God. “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God…,” Jefferson wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence… that legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” Jefferson’s “wall” was the same as Hooker’s. He believed religion should rise and fall on its own merits, unencumbered by the state.

This is what the Founding Fathers had in mind. They believed that the state – because it makes law – is by nature coercive. But religion – because it makes virtuous people – is by nature compelling. The two are neighbors, but distinct. Self-government rests on the virtue of the citizens. As Benjamin Franklin put it, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” And only religion provided virtue. The Founding Fathers were not all people of Christian faith but they believed that a freely chosen, disestablished faith was essential to democracy. For the next 150 years, the image of a wall beating back the coercive nature of the state was pervasive.

That “wall” began to change in 1947. In the Everson case, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black quoted Jefferson’s phrase in deciding a New Jersey case where the plaintiff implied religion was toxic. Since 1947, Everson has been often cited as a precedent for the state erecting an impenetrable wall sealing off Sunday from Monday. That’s why the ACLU demanded assurances that the religious views of Keith Deltano would not “seep into the presentation.” That’s 180º from Augustine, Luther, Hooker, Jefferson and the Founding Fathers. This conversation is stuck because of how we imagine the “wall.”

So why not replace today’s “wall” with Roger Williams’ hedge?5 Good hedges, like good fences, make good neighbors. Good conversations between friends often take place over hedges. Good hedges might bring out the best between the state and the church. Why not hedge our best? American liberties might otherwise collapse if most of our nation becomes antagonistic toward faith or walls off religion.

Although we in America are lucky to live under a constitutional structure that allows freedom of conscience to all, we often feel the impulse to lift the bushel a little so that the light from our own faith may shine out from it. We should do so. And so should others.

Our faiths – all the classic faiths – are not a merely private matter. They are intended to enrich the human spirit in its public as well as its private reaches. To ignore or cover over the moral dimension… is to suck wind out of the democratic sail, and to watch the experiment in self-government go slack.6

1 Over the years, I have asked groups where we get this idea of a wall separating church and state. The most common answers are the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Both answers are wrong.
2 C.f., Matthew 22:21 where Jesus admonishes his followers to “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
3 The most authoritative book on the separation of church and state is probably Philip Hamburger’s Separation of Church and State, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002).
4 Jon Meacham, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, (New York: Random House, 2006), p.54
5 Albert Einstein said you can never solve a problem inside the images that created the trouble in the first place. That’s why he also believed imagination is more important than knowledge.
6 Michael Novak, Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life (New York: Free Press, 1996), pp.51-53


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