Dec 20, 2005

A Third Option in Church/State Relations

No doubt you have noticed that around Christmas time the perennial debate over the relationship between church and state tends to heat up. Christians want to put up their Nativity scenes at the courthouse and the secularists want to stop them. Then the discussion goes round and round over the intent of the Founding fathers in the constitution's statements about religion and whether allowing a place for religious expression in the public square is tantamount to a government endorsement of religion.

The debate, it seems to me, is always polarized between two extremes, both of which were clearly seen in the recent Fox News Special on "Religion in America." On the one hand are the Separationists who believe that religion has no place whatsoever in the public square and that the government should keep religious expressions out of public facilities and meetings completely. On the other hand are the Majoritarians who believe that "majority rules" and that whatever religion happens to be in the majority should have access to the public square and a priviledge position in the culture at large. Majoritarians rightly think that separationism violates their right to the free exercise of religion. However, a case can be made that the majoritarian view really is tantamount to a government establish of religion. And so there is always the inevitble stand-off.

However, this stand-off could be greatly alleviated if both sides relaized that there is a third alternative. its an alternative that has traditionally been defended by Baptists, by the way--but most Baptists today have forgotten it. It is called Accommodationism. This is the view that the government should, as far as is practically possible, accommodate (not endorse) the free exercise of religion. In other words, to use just one example, the government should not set up Nativity scenes at the courthouse nor pay to have it done, but it should make public space available to private citizens to do so if they like. They should also make such space available to the Jews, Muslims, and atheists. The government should say to everyone, regardless of their religious views, "Ya'll come!"

Accommodationism provides for a free market of ideas. No one's rights are violated, and the government isn't establishing or endorsing any faith. This, it seems to me, is much closer to what our founding fathers intended.