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Church-State Separation: The Line’s Easy to See

Occasionally, some newspaper readers of my column will complain to their local editors that my writing has no place in the religion section.
Since I am apparently the only person of faith in America who dares write about the intersection of faith and politics, they feel my column should be moved to the editorial page.

Sometimes the complaints go the other way – that rare breed of reader who thinks that my column is too religious for the editorial page and should be moved to the portion of the paper devoted to “church happenings.”

I always respond to all these complaints in the same manner. Editors choose for themselves where to place my column.

Out of the dozen or so papers that carry my column in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi, about half feature it on the editorial page, and the other half in the religion section. I don’t get a vote, and I have no complaint with that.

The reason I have no complaint is because of the second thing I always say in response to where the column appears. My column is about the intersection of faith and life.

For those editors who choose to place it on the editorial page, that is fine with me. That it appears in some places in the religion section is equally acceptable. That reality, it seems to be, illustrates perfectly what “intersection” means.

Occasionally I get jabbed for violating my own commitment to a separation of church and state. But please take note – newspapers are not part of the state.

To express a religious opinion about a political matter in a newspaper does not violate the separation clause. What it does demonstrate, in my humble opinion, is good Christian citizenship.

I have never advocated for a separation of faith from life. In fact, if faith is to have any meaning at all, it must have an impact on the way we live.

To call out those who would subordinate faith for overt political purposes, such as declaring a particular candidate as God’s own choice, is not a threat to separation but a rallying cry for its defense.

The line between responsible Christian citizenship and political partisanship is not hard to define.

If I stand in my pulpit and exhort my congregation to vote for whomever, that is an obvious violation of the separation clause.

If I use church letterhead to promote a candidate or even a party, that represents a clear violation of what the founders had in mind for our form of government.

If, on the other hand, I use whatever medium available to me to advocate for a biblical call to justice – too exhort all who seek public office to care for the least of these – this does not breach the wall of separation.

It is in fact a time-honored biblical tradition of speaking truth to power.

Obviously, people of faith need to bring their beliefs to bear on all matters of public life. People of faith should be informed voters as well as activists for causes that are consistent with their faith.

In an ideal world, people of faith would also press for a political process that is open and honest.

Political campaigns marked by vicious attack ads and obvious distortions of truth are fair game for criticism from the faith community.

We should be leading the charge insisting that integrity and transparency characterize all political contests in our country.

We are, after all, primarily in the truth-telling business.

JamesL. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.