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Do You Define Church-State Separation the Way Santorum Does?

Does "separation between church and state" mean that government should stay out of religion, or that religion should stay out of government?


The recent church-versus-state debate has me starting to think that nobody's sure what it actually means to separate the two. Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum says the idea of a secular state makes him want to vomit, then clarifies by saying the government "has no business telling the church what to do." While prominent Catholics pan the requirement of insurance companies to cover contraceptives as an infringement on "religious freedom," I'm sitting here seething about someone else's religious conscience possibly curbing my access to birth control. And that's just one issue—I'm also mad about religion influencing public policy on everything from abstinence-only education to marriage promotion.

A new Pew Research Center study about whether Americans value the separation of church and state reveals that 52 percent of Americans think the church should "keep out of political matters." But does that 52 percent agree with me or Santorum? It's impossible to tell. "Keep government out of my religion," religious conservatives cry. Progressive secularists, meanwhile, flip the script: "Keep your religion out of my government." Those are two very different definitions of "separation."


So who's right? On first glance, both of us. The First Amendment of the Constitution reads that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," which echoes Thomas Jefferson's famous use of the "wall of separation" between the two entities in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists. The problem is, the Founding Fathers may not have predicted a third entity joining the conversation: business. In the era of national companies and corporate personhood, how a boss decides to run her business affects the rights of many others. And an increasingly secular country means a lot of those people have nothing to gain from "religious freedom." Perhaps—like many passages in the centuries-old Constitution—it's time to revisit what these declarations mean in the modern age. Otherwise, people like me and Santorum will continue to talk past each other.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Caveman Chuck Coker.

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