Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Fences and Walls

Stephen V. Monsma


May 15, 2006

An old adage says that fences make good neighbors. There is wisdom in that saying. Neighbors need to respect each other's privacy. They ought not to meddle in each other's affairs. But the old adage does not say that walls make good neighbors. Walls imply that two neighbors have nothing to do with each other. Each lives in isolation from the other, oblivious to one another's needs and concerns.

Church-state relations continue to be a source of controversy in the United States. If any further proof of this statement is needed, one only needs to recall two decisions the Supreme Court reached last year on the posting of the Ten Commandments in public places. In two 5-4 decisions the Court held that the display of the Ten Commandments on the Texas capital grounds was constitutional while a Kentucky county's display of the Ten Commandments in its courthouse was not!

In part, the uncertainty and sometimes bitter struggles that have marked the Supreme Court's church-state decisions can be traced back to 1947 when the Court adopted as its own the Thomas Jefferson metaphor of a "wall of separation" between church and state. The court declared that the Constitution "erected a wall between church and state" and went on to declare that the "wall must be kept high and impregnable."

The problem with this metaphor is that there cannot be and never has been a total separation between church and state. When a church catches fire, the municipal fire department rushes to put out the fire; churches are connected to municipal water and sewage systems; clergy who engage in sexual abuse of children are rightly prosecuted by the courts; the armed forces provide chaplains for service men and women; church buildings must meet local building codes; and almost all religiously based colleges and universities receive government funds in one form or another, as do many faith-based social-service agencies. Church bodies regularly pass resolutions urging the government to adopt one public policy or another. I could go on and on, giving examples of government and religious bodies interacting and affecting one another.

A wall of separation implies a total separation. But it simply does not fit reality. It is much better to think in terms of a fence between church and state.

Church and state should indeed be kept separate. Each should mind its own business, with neither trying to take over the functions of the other. I want no government paying my pastor's salary—or telling him what he should preach.

But I want a fence not a wall separating church and state. The two can best be seen as neighbors, as good neighbors, but neighbors nonetheless. Like good neighbors, there are places and times when, for the greater good, they need to cooperate together, coordinate their activities, and recognize and honor one another.

For government to recognize and honor the role that various communities of faith have played and continue to play is appropriate. For government to help fund faith-based social-service programs, just as it does secular social-service programs, is only just. For religious communities to seek to move public policies in directions that their faiths lead them to believe are more just is a basic right in a free society.

A fence—while maintaining a clear line of demarcation—signals that such neighborly interaction is proper. A wall implies no cooperation, no recognition, no exchange of ideas. I am convinced that our nation's ongoing discussions of the proper relations between church and state would be improved if we started out thinking of a fence rather than a wall separating the two.

—Stephen V. Monsma, Research Fellow
    The Paul Henry Institute, Calvin College

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”