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Earlier this month, retired Senator John Danforth announced the formation of an academic center on religion and politics at Washington University. Shortly after that news was published at a St. Louis Post-Dispatch blog, one reader declared, “This center is a mistake. Religion and politics do not mix.”
Now, we can debate if religion and politics should mix, but the fact they already do mix is indisputable. Consider recent deliberations over health care reform. In the bill the House of Representatives passed last month, the Catholic Church promoted strict language preventing the use of federal funds for abortion. Later, Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson threatened to oppose his chamber’s version of the bill if similar, abortion-related language was not included. In response, the Senator’s United Methodist Church encouraged him to reconsider his position, given the larger slate of social benefits the bill might deliver.
Some say these events violate our Constitutional separation of Church and State. Others point out that the Constitution’s First Amendment forbids Congress from passing laws “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion, and that by voicing their opinions on public policy, the Catholic and United Methodist Churches are doing just that: freely exercising their religions.
Clearly, these issues are more complex than the simplistic declaration of one reader of one blog. And where such complexity exists, it begs further study and discussion – which seems to be the very goal of the academic effort to which Senator Danforth has now attached his name.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Pete Abel is a public affairs executive. He serves on the boards of Stages St. Louis and the Greater Missouri Chapter of the Tourette Syndrome Association. Previously, he served as managing editor of the political blog “The Moderate Voice.” His career started in 1985, first as a freelance reporter and later as a full-time staff writer for the St. Louis Suburban Journals, covering municipal politics and local businesses.