I had a curious discussion the other day about church and state. In recent years, it seems a tendency to demand very narrow definitions has become more prevalent, with the result that you start wondering where people have been that they are unfamiliar with the common context of words and phrases. In this case, the discussion had to do with church and state, and the assertion that there is still some crossover taking place. A person of faith wondered what century an associate was living in, so I gave a twenty-first century example of the Bush administration appointing a woman named Pam Stenzel to a task force within the Department of Health and Human Services to promote and implement guidelines for an abstinence education program.
The thing is that abstinence education doesn’t work, and Stenzel knows it. According to Michelle Goldberg, Stenzel addressed the 2003 Reclaiming America for Christ conference, and told them a story about a man she met on an airplane, who asked about how well the program works:
At Reclaiming America for Christ, Stenzel told her audience about a conversation she’d had with a skeptical businessman on an airplane. The man had asked about abstinence education’s success rate, a question she regarded as risible.
“What he’s asking,” she said, “is ‘does it work?’ You know what? Doesn’t matter. ‘Cause guess what? My job is not to keep teenagers from having sex. The public school’s job should not be to keep teens from having sex.”
Then her voice rose and turned angry as she shouted, “Our job should be to tell kids the truth!” And I should say that up ’til then, I agreed with her. But here’s what she means by the truth:
“People of God,” she cried, “can I beg you to commit yourself to truth? Not what works, to truth! I don’t care if it works, because at the end of the day, I’m not answering to you. I’m answering to God.
“Let me tell you something, People of God, that is radical, and I can only say it here,” she said. “AIDS is not the enemy. HPV and a hysterectomy at twenty is not the enemy. An unplanned pregnancy is not the enemy. My child believing that they can shake their fist in the face of a holy God and sin without consequence, and my child spending eternity separated from God, is the enemy! I will not teach my child that they can sin safely!”
My associate asked what church that was promoting. The answer, obviously, is Christianity in general. But he wanted something more specific.
These aren’t the old days of the Maryland colony; indeed, if you look at the First Amendment and the judicial history thereof, everything pertains to religion as opposed to sects or denominations. The idea of one promoting specifically a Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, or other such agenda always comes back to the root faith: Christianity. It’s not simply about denominations, branches, or sects, but also—and perhaps fundamentally—the broader religious paradigm. One need not be a constitutional scholar to recognize this; the legal layman can certainly do something like examine judicial decisions and compile a list; Torcaso v. Watkins, for instance, pertained not to sects or even religions, but a question of theism and atheism—the state cannot compel a person to swear belief in God as a prerequisite for holding public office.
Questions of church and state in the twenty-first century have a slightly more subtle context, and this isn’t really anything new. In the twentieth century, we still fought over whether to adopt a faith-based definition (life begins at conception), faith-based “science” (creationism/intelligent design), faith-based civil rights (homosexuality), and so on. The Oregon Citizens’ Alliance and its decade-long crusade against gays wasn’t a sectarian issue, but rather a Christian-values issue.