Barack Obama: A Church-State Separation Conservative?

In October of 1934, in T.S. Eliot’s quarterly, The Criterion, the historian Christopher Dawson, in an essay titled, “Religion and the Totalitarian State,” made a rather astute observation:

[T]he coming conflict is not one between religion and secular civilization but rather ‘between the God religious and the social religious’—in other words between the worship of God and the cult of the state or of the race or of humanity.

Dawson was obviously referring to the gathering clouds of conflict that he foresaw in the evangelical cults of Nazism and Stalinism.

But what I think is really interesting is Dawson’s ability to make the distinction between ‘religion and secular civilization’ and ‘evangelical religion v. evangelical secularism.’

In other words, religion and secular civilization can thrive alongside one another, and needn’t be hostile to one another, if they accept the limits of their proper domains.

The problem comes in two directions:

  • First, wherever religion becomes theocratic and wishes to impose itself upon the liberty of its opposition, either by majority will, or by force.
  • Second, wherever the State becomes evangelical, and wishes to impose upon the liberty of its perceived opposition, either by majority will, or by force.

Examples of the first include religious strictures placed upon gays and women—such as laws against same-sex marriage and abortion—and enforced by the State. Examples of the second include forced educational curriculums upon the children of the religious—as occurs when parents are not given the option to guide their children’s beliefs about evoluton.

One thing that I like about Barack Obama, and that I find conservative about him, is that he seems to genuinely try to make peace between the secular and the religious. He seems to recognize the dangers of overreaching in both the realms of religion and the State.

Notice, for example, that Obama opposes the same sex marriage ban that will be on California’s ballot in November, but he also supports the expansion of President Bush’s faith-based initiatives program.

And he supports abortion rights, but also rejects the notion that late-term pregnancies should be terminated due to mental distress alone.

He supports the right of students to have prayer groups in schools and certain traditional mottos to be on display (such as “In God We Trust”), but does not support prayers led by teachers.

Obama, in short, has a deeply conservative instinct concerning the relationship between the State and religion, and he deserves credit for his attempts to strike a balance between the two.

He seems to be a man who, absorbing the lessons of history, has learned caution, and what could be more conservative than that?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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