Editor’s Note: The American Founders, having witnessed the carnage of European religious wars, established the United States as a nation where all religions would be respected but none would be favored.

That founding principle has spared the country the violent divisions that have stalked other lands, from Northern Ireland to Israel/Palestine to Iran and Iraq. But some Christians now want to tear down the American wall between church and  state, as retired Baptist minister Howard Bess notes in this guest essay:

Under its auspices billions of federal public assistance dollars were distributed to and through faith-based organizations. From the beginning of the program it was attacked as an unconstitutional fostering of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

With the election of Barack Obama, many critics anticipated the demise of the program. Obama surprised almost everyone by announcing its continuation with a promise of a major revision of the operation. He named a 25-member Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Community Partnerships to oversee the conduct of the program.

The membership of the Council was very diverse – and divided – as the council set down new rules for the faith-based initiative.

To illustrate the tensions involved, the Council adopted a resolution that religious organizations must form new 501-c-3 tax-exempt not-for-profit corporations to receive federal monies. The move was seen as necessary to insure that the religious activity of a church and its social services were kept separate.

The vote was 13-12, indicating that a vigorous debate still rages in the United States about the separation of church and state.

In another little-noticed news item, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs has recommended that the U.S. Government develop a strategy to make religion “integral” to American foreign policy.

The Chicago Council is a powerful organization that was formed in the 1920s to influence and shape American foreign policy. The Chicago Council has no official standing, but its influence over the years has been enormous. It now poses the question: Should American foreign policy get religion?

Americans have become quite accustomed to arguing about issues of separation of church and state in domestic affairs; but issues of separation of church and state have little history in foreign affairs. 

The last time any hint of the issue occurred was when President Ronald Reagan first appointed an ambassador to the Vatican in 1984. There were a lot of unhappy Protestants when Mr. Reagan took that step.

Make a note, the recommendation of the Chicago Council marks a much larger step into the separation issue, by raising the question: Does the First Amendment have a necessary application to foreign policy?

Brent Walker, a member of the Supreme Court Bar and the executive of a powerful Baptist separation lobby, believes the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause does apply to the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.

Walker acknowledges that the U.S. may of necessity deal with religious bodies in the conduct of foreign policy, but says the First Amendment puts constraints on the U.S. approach in all American relationships.

The United States is a secular nation that embraces no religion in particular. There are many Americans who argue against the truth of that statement and would like to bring about a dramatic change – and they are growing stronger every day.

Their movement is often called Christian Triumphalism or Christian Nationalism. Advocates are sometimes referred to as dominionists.

While they have formed many different groups, one prominent organizational name appears with regularity. It is the New Apostolic Reformation. Cells of participants now cover the nation.

Adherents include a long list of prominent religious and political leaders. Among their central convictions is that separation of church and state must cease; the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth must take place; the process must begin with the United States. Their great enemy is separation of church and state.

Two social issues refuse to take leave of our national attention. The first is the issue of abortion. It is a prime example of religious groups that are determined to force their religious beliefs on a secular nation. 

I have deep respect for those who believe an abortion is always a violation of the will of God. Devout people are completely free to reject birth control measures. They are free to convince others of their religious convictions about when life begins. 

However, legal banning of all abortions would be a matter of government taking the religious convictions of certain people and forcing it on all citizens. The First Amendment is our protection from government interference in religion.

The second thorny social issue in the U.S. is the legal rights of gays. Gay people would have had full legal rights years ago except for the attempt of religious people to force their theological beliefs on the nation. 

Legal rights for our gay citizens have nothing to do with any passage from the Bible because no interpretation of the Bible has any relevance to the laws of our land. Yet religious people insist their particular beliefs be established as the law of the land.

Religious people can maintain their religious beliefs about sexual orientation and sexual behavior. I respect their decisions and commitments. However, to ask government to force the convictions of one group onto all citizens is not compatible with First Amendment rights.

The United States is a great experiment. Central to that experiment is the encouragement of diversity, beginning with religion. May it ever be so.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is hdbss@mtaonline.net. 

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