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

Religion in Public Life--and in Election Campaigns

Stephen Monsma


May 11, 2012
By Stephen Monsma

This article originally appeared as part of the Alternative Political Conversation Project, hosted by Harold Heie and cosponsored by the Center for Public Justice.  For additional perspectives on religious freedom or to join the conversation, go to

Given the large role of religion in most Americans’ lives, when combined with their commitment to religious freedom and the separation of church and state, it is not surprising that conflicts between the two have at times arisen.  But this need not be so. 

Most of the perceived tensions arise from one of two sources.  The first occurs when public office holders or candidates for public office relate their religious faith to the policy positions they favor.  Then they invariably are charged with violating church-state separation or advocating a theocratic regime.  

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, a former Republican presidential candidate, provides a recent example. Santorum—a sincere, practicing Roman Catholic with conservative views—has argued that John F. Kennedy inappropriately separated his Catholic faith from his actions as a candidate for President in 1960. In his campaign website, Santorum proclaimed that he “fought for the preservation of the traditional American family.”  He expressed the traditional Catholic opposition to artificial birth control, insisting he does not favor forcing this position onto all by force of law. 

As a result, a New York Times columnist labeled Santorum a “small-town mullah” and charged he was “telling people how to run their lives.”  Another commentator declared, “What Santorum wants is a theocracy in which Catholic dogma is the rule of the land.”   

But these comments confuse the separation of church and state with the separation of religious views and public policy.  Church and state indeed ought to be separate, with the state not attempting to take on the duties of an organized church and the organized church not attempting to act like the state. 

However, all of us—whether deeply religious or more secularly minded—are shaped in our thinking and policy positions by our beliefs, backgrounds, and life experiences; for a deeply religious person like Santorum, this includes his beliefs as a Catholic.  And for a candidate for public office to explain how his or her faith—whether religiously based or rooted in secular perspectives—is not only appropriate but also helpful to us as voters.

A second way in which a conflict between church and state can potentially arise is when government directives require certain religious believers to act contrary to their faith-based beliefs.  A military draft may force a pacifist opposed to participation in war on religious grounds to choose between fighting and killing or imprisonment.  Seventh Day Adventists have faced the loss of unemployment benefits for refusing to take jobs that involved Saturday work.  And in a recent controversy, some faith-based organizations have faced the possibility of heavy fines if they do not accede to an Obama administration mandate that they include birth control coverage—defined so as to include some abortifacients—in their health insurance plans for their employees. 

There are two ways in which this type of threat to religious freedom can be met.  One is to do away with the mandate entirely – to repeal the military draft, allow all recipients of unemployment insurance to turn down proffered jobs and allow all employers to exclude birth control in their health insurance policies.  But this could have negative consequences for the common good. 

We as a nation have usually handled religious objections to such mandates not by doing away with the mandate, but in a second way: namely, creating an exemption for those with serious, religiously based objections to the mandated policy.  In that way, no religious group imposes its will onto the nation as a whole, and the nation as a whole does not force a religious group to violate its conscience.  Thus, an exemption from the military draft for religious pacifists has been included in most draft laws.  And, in 1963 the Supreme Court declared that an unemployed Seventh Day Adventist who had turned down a job that involved Saturday work could not be denied unemployment benefits. 

No one should allege a violation of church-state separation when a political leader or candidate for public office urges such an exemption or our government in fact does so.  Instead, we are then following historic precedence and acting in accordance with freedom of religious belief and action for all. 

—Stephen V. Monsma is a Senior Research Fellow at the Henry Institute at Calvin College, Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Pepperdine University, and author of Pluralism and Freedom: Faith-Based Organizations in a Democratic Society (2012)


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