U.S. Representative Katherine Harris (R, FL) recently called separation of church and state “a lie” and said that God and the Founding Fathers did not intend a “nation of secular laws.” She also told a religious journal that if Christians are not elected than in essence Americans have elected people who will “legislate sin.”
Rep. Harris’ comments come in the midst of her campaign for one of the State of Florida’s seats in the United States Senate. Needless to say her comments have drawn criticism from her opposition, but she’s also lost support among other Republican Party leaders.
Whether Rep. Harris should be elected to one of Florida’s Senate seats is a decision for the people of Florida. But we can say that her grasp of early American political history needs a tune up.
Most of the Founding Fathers were religious people, some were Christians, some were Deists, and some were less committed individuals. A few were not believers at all. To a person, though, they distrusted Church governance of the State and State governance of the Church. Then-recent European history was replete with negative examples of too much Church/State interconnection.
While the term “separation of church and state” does not appear in the key documents, The Declaration of Independence or the United States Constitution, it was a political doctrine promoted a century earlier by Roger Williams and embraced after the Constitutional Convention by Founders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution forbids government from establishing a religion and prohibits government from intervening in the free exercise of religion.
What perhaps Rep. Harris intended to say is that the Founding Fathers never intended and did not establish a separation of religion and politics. They did not because they valued the input of religion, believed religion helped keep politics true to appropriate values, and was impossible practically speaking to separate from politics anyway. What they intended was for the Church not to control the State and the State not to control or establish any given Church. They believed in religious and political liberty.
While I cannot judge her motives or her character, I can say that Rep. Harris’ remarks about church and state, and about others who do not share her Christian commitment, are unwise and unnecessary. They feed fuel to those who do not share her religious and political values and needlessly offend those who may share her political values but not her religious views.
We’ve said before that journalists need to grow more sophisticated in their understanding of religion and its intersection with politics. Perhaps religious, and especially specifically Christian, people need to become more sophisticated in how to express their religious views in politics.
© Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2006
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