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.

2 comments:

glympton said...

I like your argument for Accomodation. The government of a free society ought to be open to the practice of all religions. I do have two comments about your example. We already have an example of using public schools after hours. In most states this is open to anyone to come use the site, with the permission of the principal. Courts have found that if the school is open to any student group then it has to be open to all. My second comment raises another question. Why do we need a nativity scene in a city hall or city park? If the nativity scenes are in people's yards and on church property, does that not allow us the public worship and celebration we wish? Any group can go the city now and reserve the park for daily or longer use. If the city declares which publically owned spaces which are available for use and the fair conditions of that use, they are accommodating religion.

Dr. Steve Cowan said...

glympton said...
My second comment raises another question. Why do we need a nativity scene in a city hall or city park? If the nativity scenes are in people's yards and on church property, does that not allow us the public worship and celebration we wish?

I totally agree. Even though I do think that the state ought to accomodate the free expression of religion as indicated in my original post, there is no pressing need or requirement on Christians or the church to have nativity scenes on public property. In fact, when I see such scenes I often think, "What's the point?"