The Natural Solution to Church-State Separation

Many commentaries on President Obama’s new policy for faith-based initiatives seem to flounder on the same issue: How can something … Continued

Many commentaries on President Obama’s new policy for faith-based initiatives seem to flounder on the same issue: How can something faith-based honor the separation of Church and State? The answer, I think, comes from the concept of the Natural Law.

Natural Law Theory states that different people may arrive at the same conclusion about what is right and wrong. As long as persons use reason, it is argued, they will eventually agree on basic social issues. Is murder ever justified? Are nuclear weapons permissible? Is there a right to organize in a labor union? Are there moral limits to economic practices like charging interest on loans? Catholic optimists believe that faith and reason don’t clash on such major issues. While believers use BOTH faith and reason, an open mind and sincere heart using logic alone will arrive at similar conclusions. The underlying concept is that the “laws of nature and nature’s God” are one and the same.

Since I entered academia, I have discovered that the principle of Natural Law underlies a great deal of social thinking, and not just for Catholics. The Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776 may have come from the hand of free thinking Deist Thomas Jefferson, but its intellectual principles for revolution can be traced directly to the Spanish Jesuit, Juan de Mariana (1536-1624). Sociologists with a sweet spot for Liberal Protestantism like Robert Bellah also buy into the basic Natural Law premise. People of faith may be MOTIVATED by religion, he says, but such belief leads them to ACT reasonably and in concert with other citizens in the public square. Bellah is nettled by those who proclaim faith as antagonistic to reason, as if being logical and cooperative in public matters constituted a weakened faith.

Of course, there are believers who stretch the Natural Law principle too far. I can’t agree with the Catholic bishops who have stated that biology has established that human life begins with a fertilized ovum. (Fertility doctors consider implantation in the womb the moment of conception.) Much less can I see Intelligent Design as a reasonable argument against evolution or a biblical quote from the Book of Jeremiah (Jer. 1:5) as “proof” that abortion is morally wrong. If an issue is contentious, that alone is evidence of the limits of Natural Law. It agrees with faith most of the time, but never always.

However, I also reject the argument from secularists that separation of Church and State means that the government must promote atheism. We can keep government secular and still support plans like Obama’s faith-based initiative or turning Catholic schools into charter schools. As citizens, people of faith have the same rights as non-believers. If religion is focused upon righteous motivation for doing good, it does not intrude upon the non-denominational aspects of the United States’ legal tradition. Nothing worthwhile is easy, and debate doesn’t always destroy cooperation between believers and non-believers. I sometimes think there are more conflicts between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill than between Methodists and Catholics or Episcopalians and Socialists in working for social justice.

President Obama’s new idea for faith-based initiatives seems to strike a right balance. Funds go to NEIGHBORHOODS that have created a coalition of churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, etc. The focus is on helping people with human services that benefit the common good. The social capital of religious institutions, their traditions of volunteerism and altruistic generosity provide bigger “bang-for-the-buck” than many government bureaucracies. Why exclude such citizens from the social project? Setting conditions for funding can help insure that the delivery of services meets basic professional standards. In this way, faith is wed to citizenship in ways beneficial to both. Moreover, by making grants to a coalition rather than to a single church, the ecumenical partners become guardians over the process that taxpayers’ dollars are not used to fatten one congregation’s membership lists. Obama’s principle also settles most hiring decisions equitably.

At a moment with revolutionary potential in American history such as began on January 20, 2009, it’s appropriate to appeal again to the “laws of nature and nature’s God.” “Faith-based” is a solution.

About

Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo is Professor Emeritus of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College and Distinguished Scholar of the City University of New York.
  • Carstonio

    “I also reject the argument from secularists that separation of Church and State means that the government must promote atheism.”I know of no secularists who make such an argument. That’s really a straw man created by the religious right, and Steven-Arroyo may not realize that. Keeping government from taking a sectarian stance does not equate to atheism, and secularists understand that.

  • usapdx

    WHY IS IT THAT SOME WHO VIOLATE THE TAX EXAMPT I.R.S. RULES AS WE HAVE SEEN IN THIS PAST ELECTION SEASON WILL FILE TAX EXAMPT FOR 2008 AS THEY HAVE IN THE PAST AND WE THE PEOPLE WILL TRUST THEM WITH OUR TAX MONEY? SOME ARE NOT COMPLYING WITH OUR LAWS NOT TO SAY THEIR OWN FOR THE SAME EVENT. ASK QUESTIONS ALWAYS.

  • BrianWestley

    “I know of no secularists who make such an argument. That’s really a straw man created by the religious right, and Steven-Arroyo may not realize that.”Stevens-Arroyo has a pathological hatred of atheists (just read some of his past opinions).He is the typical theist who thinks that if the government is not actively promoting his religious views, it must be promoting atheism.

  • marcedward1

    “Promoting Atheism” – rather an ox-moron, no? The government needs to do nothing to promote atheism, and I have heard of no ‘secular’ people who have asked for the government to promote atheism in any way what so ever. What we don’t want is the government promoting religion. Taxing me for my land and not taxing the church next door promotes religion, period.

  • CCNL

    usapdx,Hmmm, another attempt by you aka Farnaz to break your promise not to make commentaries on this blog ???

  • CCNL

    BO should require that all religions correct the flaws and errors in their history and theology before they will be considered for taxpayer support.

  • nednreader

    Any US dollars given to Religious Groups runs contrary to the constitution, regardless of how evenhanded President Obama may be. What about the next administration? This,”Can’t we all get along,” idea of natural law is a really bad idea for our democracy. This is the kind of thinking that allows the religious views of the majority of voters to be imposed on a minority, by referendum, as in Proposition 8. By this same sort of thinking Christians could vote to close all synagogues and deport all Muslims by a majority vote.”Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person’s life, freedom of religion affects every individual. Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the,”wall of separation of church and state,” therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.”

  • nednreader

    Any US dollars given to Religious Groups runs contrary to the constitution, regardless of how evenhanded President Obama may be. What about the next administration? This,”Can’t we all get along,” idea of natural law is a really bad idea for our democracy. This is the kind of thinking that allows the religious views of the majority of voters to be imposed on a minority, by referendum, as in Proposition 8. By this same sort of thinking Christians could vote to close all synagogues and deport all Muslims by a majority vote.”Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person’s life, freedom of religion affects every individual. Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the,”wall of separation of church and state,” therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.”

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    People think that the concept of natural law comes from science. But that is not true. Science does not recognize any such phenomena as natural law. Natural law is a philosophical concept of the Anglo – Fench Enlightenment that sought to explain the successes of science from the 17th century onward. Today, there is no scienfitic formulation of natural laws, only impressions of order in the universe, which can be seen to have predictable patterns associated with them, whose nature is, ultimately, unknwn.There is no scientific formulation of a natural law, or what it might be. And science does not need such a concept as natural law in order to operate as it does. Natural Law is philosophy, which is a step away from religion. It is not a scientific truth that all people can agree upon.This whole line of thinking is flawed.

  • cornishpj

    For the love of peace, could we please make some effort to reserve commentary on the Catholic natural law tradition (and by the way it is a tradition of discourse, not a “theory” or “prinicple”) to some one who knows more about it than the name of a single representative of the Jesuit version in late 16th/early 17th century. Why not Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Gratian, Innocent IV, Aquinas, Henry of Ghent, Bonaventure, Scotus, Okham, Gerson,Cajetan, Vitoria, Suarez, every Pope of the modern era etc. Plus my list leaves out the many influential contemporary interpretations. And by the way Carstonio, Catholics are very aware of what “sectarian” means in the history of law in the United States. It means “Catholic”. (See Blaine Amendment).

  • ivri5768

    Anthony writes:One of these days, you’re going to have to fess up and tell us how that happened. Broke the door down with a club? Had the goods on someone? Promised to limit your painful braying to WaPo?Got an idea. How about doing something faith-based? That is, in the interest of those who have faith that minds can grow even in the currently depleted soil of which your presence gives evidence. Why not donate your salary to a scholarship fund? You can get another job to pay your bills, thus sparing your colleagues over-exposure, and re-affirming the “natural order” which places you outside, at a far distance from classrooms in this country, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, the Equator, etc.

  • mustang4me

    Tony, please cite one, ANY one example of government promoting atheism. Won’t be any, I guarantee you.Your claim is pure ignorant bigotry.

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