Excerpts from an interview with Rev. J. Brent Walker, an ordained minister and reputable lawyer who is Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. Check out their website and enjoy!
Q: What are your views on the separation of church and state? How were these views formed?
A: The separation of church and state is good for both. The institutional and functional separation between the two is called for by our Baptist heritage and required by the religion clauses in the First Amendment: No Establishment and Free Exercise. Neither church nor state should try to control or interfere with the work or mission of the other. This is especially important in a religiously diverse culture that we find in the United States. Government must remain neutral towards religion.
Q: What role do you think religion will play/is playing in the upcoming Presidential election?
A:The separation of church does not require segregation of religion from politics or strip the public square of religious discourse. Learning about a candidate’s faith helps voters get to know who they are, understand what makes them tick and examine what their moral code is like. A free and fluid discussion in the public square about a candidate’s religious convictions is not out of bounds and can enrich the public discourse during elections. But it’s vitally important that the discussion about religious conviction always be tied directly to a candidate’s position on public policy or his or her leadership style. Otherwise, an examination of a candidate’s religion is little more than spiritual voyeurism and violates the spirit if not the letter of Article VI of the Constitution that bans a religious test for public office.
Q: Should political candidates be allowed to speak in churches, or is that mixing church and state? Why or why not?
A: Political candidates can speak in churches if all candidates are invited and the church is clear that it is not endorsing or opposing candidates. Candidates should be allowed to worship and speak in churches (without all being invited) if they avoid making a political speech and the church makes it clear that it does not endorse or oppose candidates. Even within these guidelines, the appearance of a candidate may be divisive and vitiate the churches prophetic witness. As a result, the church may find it wise not to permit candidates to speak.
Q: Should religious authorities endorse political candidates? Why or why not?
A: Religious leaders, speaking for themselves and not for the church or entity they represent, may endorse political candidates without threatening the tax exempt status of the church. Again, leaders may choose not to do so for fear of creating the impression that their church is also endorsing.
Q: Is the media coverage of the Rev. Wright controversy appropriate? What should the media be doing differently? Should Sen. Obama be judged based on his pastor?
A: The question of where one worships and whose preaching someone has sat under in the past are not completely irrelevant. However, I think the firestorm created by the statements in sermons by Senator Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, has gone way too far. Senator Obama has stated clearly his disagreement with the sometimes inflammatory remarks that Dr. Wright has made. However, to make Obama suffer a political penalty for refusing to repudiate Dr. Wright himself – one who served as his spiritual leader for years, married Obama and his wife and baptized his children is to expect too much. The same goes for present and former pastors of Senators Clinton and McCain.
Q: Should religious officials/institutions be permitted to endorse political candidates?
A: Religious officials, when speaking for themselves, may endorse political candidates. Religious institutions (section 501(c)(3) nonprofits) may endorse candidates, but not without threatening their tax exempt status. In any case, the practice of endorsing candidates by officials and institutions will often be divisive and corrosive of the churches’ witness.
Q: Politicians often invoke God in their speeches, especially in the South. In places like Texas, there aren't a lot of people who would object. Does that make it acceptable?
A: Candidates do not have to check their religious convictions at the door. It is appropriate for them to talk about their faith, and use religious language in their speeches. But I bristle when it appears that God is being used (or abused) to advance a political agenda. Candidates should be careful in their use of religious language and understand that they are seeking to serve all the citizens, religious and non-religious alike, and not just those who share a common religious heritage.
Q: Many social justice issues, particularly gay marriage, are often approached in the political arena with religious arguments. Is this appropriate, considering our country's separation of church and state? Should any/all mainly religious morals be imposed on the general public?
A: The separation of church and state does not divorce religious ethics from influencing public policy. However, I offer three notes of caution: (1) the theological principle of humility should temper any public debate driven by religious conviction, (2) as mentioned above, God talk should not be used to curry favor or garner votes, and (3) the resulting policy outcome, under the Constitution, must have a secular purpose and not have the primary effect of advancing religion.