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Union University Department of Political Science
Department of Political Science

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God v Caesar: Church-State Reconsidered

Sep 18, 2007

The Department of Political Science celebrated “Constitution Day” by holding a forum on religious liberty entitled “God v Caesar: Church and State Reconsidered.” In an event attended by approximately, 40 students and community members, Dr. Micah Watson, Assistant Professor and Director of the Center for Politics and Religion, spoke on the history of church state relations. Dr. Sean Evans, Associate Professor and Department Chair, spoke on the how the Supreme Court has interpreted the establishment clause.

First, Dr. Watson addressed some of the historical and scriptural roots of the different roles of church and state. He set the stage for the novelty and accomplishment of the American experiment in religious liberty by discussing how the separation we take for granted today was not the norm historically. At the same time, Dr. Watson also pointed out some of the scriptural and traditional basis for the different roles played by the church and by the government. Jesus' injunction to give to Ceasar what is Ceasar's and to God's what is God's, to St. Augustine's city of God and city and man, and Martin Luther's two kingdoms concept are all examples of Christian thinking about politics. This background helps us understand, appreciate, and evaluate the solution offered by the Founders in the religion clauses of the Constitution.

Dr. Evans built upon this by connecting these ideas to Supreme Court decisions to show how establishment clause jurisprudence has evolved over time. He began by discussing the two separation narratives that people use to explain the establishment clause. First, accommodation or non-preferentialism supports no governmental aid for particular religions but support for all religions. In this view, the First Amendment forbade the establishment of a particular church and precluded government from favoring one church group over another. But that is all it did. It does not preclude federal aid to religious groups so long as it does not further a religious purpose and it does not discriminate in favor of one religious group over another.

Second, the support for separation came from diverse individuals such as Roger Williams who wanted to protect religion from the state to prevent the state from corrupting the church, Thomas Jefferson who wanted to protect the government from religious fervor, and James Madison who feared state supported churches was divide the public.

Based on these readings of the Founders, the Supreme Court basically developed three theories of interpretation. First, strict separation requires state neutrality and a secular purpose for legislation but may permit some benefits or indirect support for religion. Second, strict neutrality requires not merely a secular purpose for legislation but bars all laws that either aid or hinder religion. Third, accommodation requires that laws must have a secular purpose but government accommodation that furthers religious freedom without endorsing a particular religion is acceptable. Dr. Evans then traced the history of the development of these ideas from Everson v Board of Ed of Ewing Township (1947) which developed the high wall metaphor to Lemon v Kurtzman‘s (1971) three prong standard through Justice Anthony Kennedy’s coercion test (Lee v Weisman 1992), Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s endorsement test (Wallace v Jaffree 1985) to Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s accommodation test mentioned in his dissent in Wallace.

Both Dr. Watson and Dr. Evans laid out a challenging argument for students and guests alike to contend with in their personal outlook on church state relations. The event concluded with a lively Q & A session which focused on the future of the Supreme Court, the role of Islam in international politics, and Mitt Romney’s “Morman” issue.