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DFLers, Don't Check Your Faith At The Door

When State Representative Michael Paymar objected to the change in the Minnesota House of Representative's rule on the pre-session prayer, he was not objecting to having a chaplain lead the House in prayer at the start of each day's session. On the contrary, he asked that the prayer not exclude him and other non-Christian members from participating. He wanted to participate in the prayer, not eliminate it.

This might come as a shock to some DFLers, who think the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution mandates a complete separation of issues of faith from government policy. It does not.

The First Amendment prohibits the government from establishing an official, state religion, and it guarantees each of us the right to worship, or not worship, as we choose. The prohibition against establishing a state religion was a response to the history of church-state relations in the United Kingdom, the mother country for the American colonies. The King of England, Scotland, and Ireland also was the head of the Churches of England, Scotland, and Ireland. This created conflict between members of these churches and people of other faiths, such as Congregationalists and Roman Catholics. This conflict was one of the issues that led to the English Civil War. The founders of our country sought to save us from repeating this history.

The founders had two purposes for prohibiting the establishment of a state religion. First, they were concerned that citizens who were not members of the state religion might be persecuted for their faith. A state religion is the antithesis of the other faith-related guarantee in the First Amendment-freedom of worship. Second, and less obvious to people today, they wanted to protect religion from being corrupted by politics and politicians (of which the ideological prostitution by the leaders of the Christian Coalition to the Republican Party is an example). In both of these ways, the prohibition against establishing a state religion was designed to promote religious faith, not stifle it.

The founders envisioned that our country and its public policies would be energized by the active participation of people of faith in government. We DFLers who are people of faith should make our faith part of our advocacy on public policy issues, such as concern for the poor, a paramount responsibility for Jews and Christians (and for people of many other world religions, I assume). Those of us, like myself, who are Christians should not allow the Religious Right to define Christianity as a faith based on intolerance. If we muzzle ourselves about our faith as it relates to our views on public policy issues, while the conservatives publicly proclaim that they are soldiers of God, then we allow them to claim that mantle.

For further reading on this subject, I recommend The Soul of Politics by Jim Wallis, the head of the Sojourners organization. Alas, Reverend Wallis believes that faith-based political action must remain outside the two major parties because, in his view, both parities inevitably will corrupt the message of faith. I hope he is wrong about that.

Bill Connors
  
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