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Religion and Politics: The Wall, The Great Divide

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General Assembly 2004 Event 3032

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Forrest Church, Senior Minister, Unitarian Church of All Souls, New York City

The separation of church and state, espoused by the founders of our nation, today lies in jeopardy. The Rev. Dr. Forrest Church expanded on this theme to a large Saturday afternoon crowd in the Grand Ballroom.

Forty-four years ago, it was feared that John Kennedy was too Catholic for the White House. Today, we are told, John Kerry is not Catholic enough. Meanwhile, it is George W. Bush who asks the American Catholic bishops to speak more forcibly. So have the times changed.

However, we must be vigilant to our own behavior if we are to be stentorian in condemning others. The distribution of campaign literature inside a church could jeopardize its tax-exempt status, and endorsing a political candidate from the pulpit would not be wise. When a political candidate requested the use of All Souls UU Church for a candlelight vigil during the Republican Convention, the Board said no. Issues and principles are appropriate for the church and the pulpit, not political candidates.

Forrest Church outlined the history preceding the separation of church and state. The 18th century Enlightenment sought freedom from the dictates of religion, while the Great Awakening (from 1740 to 1760) sought freedom for religion. These two movements collaborated to establish the separation of church and state and led Thomas Jefferson in 1802 to declare a “Wall of Separation” between them.

Forrest Church's latest book, entitled The Separation of Church and State: Writings on a Fundamental Freedom by America's Founders, outlines the history of this issue from 1772 to 1802. As an example, he discussed the Treaty of Tripoli (1796). The preamble assures us that President John Adams accepts every clause, apparently including clause number 11 that states, “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion”.

In answer to questions from the floor, Forrest Church agreed that while there is a wall between church and state, the dividing line between religion and politics is often fuzzy. He urged us to remain vigilant during these difficult times.

Reported by Mike McNaughton; edited by Joyce Holmen.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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