A Typology Of Church-State Relations In Current American Thought -- By: Carl H. Esbeck

Journal: Faith and Mission
Volume: FM 08:1 (Fall 1990)
Article: A Typology Of Church-State Relations In Current American Thought
Author: Carl H. Esbeck

A Typology Of Church-State Relations
In Current American Thought

Carl H. Esbeck

Professor of Law, University of Missouri-Columbia

Views concerning the appropriate relationship between church and state are rapidly becoming almost as numerous as America’s religious sects. The Constitution’s treatment of religious liberty, thought by many to be a matter long settled, has now erupted into a many-sided conflict. Not only lawyers, judges, and legal commentators are involved; historians and sociologists, theologians and ecclesiastics, political theorists and statesmen also participate in the discussion. It is part of a much larger debate over a redefinition, or for some a reclamation, of the role of religion in American public life. And the role-of-religion debate is yet a subset of the epic struggle over who will assume the mantle of cultural authority in the United States. At times this conflict focuses on discrete environments, such as public schools or ancestral lands of Native Americans. At other times it deals with broader questions such as religion’s influence on economic policy, the morality of nuclear weaponry, or the direction to be taken by our foreign policy in fostering or opposing political movements in third-world nations.

The conflict is as confused as it is many-sided. To the uninitiated, it seems that the issue is clearly defined as a choice between two camps: conservative religious adherents on one hand and proponents of a modernist secular society on the other, with perhaps the moderate positions notched along a line running between these polar extremes. But perplexities defy this linear model. For instance, some traditional religious groups have long made common cause with dedicated secularists in opposing many evidences of religion in civic life. So many voices are heard, so many confident but diverse assertions about how state and church should interact are made, so many lawsuits are raising novel issues, and so many seemingly conflicting court decisions are reported, that bewilderment and uncertainty beset scholars and laymen alike.

This essay sets forth the six common positions that now model the way in which Americans are working out the problem of relations between church and state. One of the tools of academia is to classify and thereby reduce that which is complex to terms that are manageable for further study. This alone would justify the typology attempted here, but the burden of this paper is more ambitious. This American debate needs a vocabulary that is not “preloaded” or pejorative so that competing groups might address one another with intelligence, fairness, and respect. At present the discourse is mired in discord. It is far too easy to lose one’s way in the vilification, exaggeration, and other rhetorica...

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