What Does It Mean to Separate Faith and Culture?

When John G. Roberts was nominated in July 2005 to become the Chief Justice of the United States, there was a flurry of deep concern among politicians and in the major media that he was a devout Catholic. Why should this be a concern, we might ask.

Judge Roberts and his wife, both of them apparently sincere Christians, were constantly in the spotlight through this nomination process — precisely because they were Christians. Judge Roberts was asked, quite bluntly at times, if religion would get in the way of performing his duties faithfully on the Supreme Court. Would he be willing and able to keep his faith, as Peter Steinfels of The New York Times said at the time, “separate from his legal judgments”? One priest, who knew the couple well, even suggested that their faith “would affect their personal lives, but they are very professional in their work.”

I take it this means that faith, if it were allowed to seep into public responsibilities, might cloud clear thinking or muddy the waters of the wise discernment required of a Supreme Court justice or any professional in any area.

Steinfels suggests that what we are talking about these days is “a warm but conventionally contained religious faith,” a faith that must stay tightly restricted to the private sphere and must be fiercely guarded on all fronts from contaminating one’s pure, professional performance. “This dichotomy,” says Steinfels, “between the personal and the public comes naturally to a Western culture that for half a millennium has been gradually freeing areas like law, science, medicine, politics, and economics from direct oversight by religion.”

This is true, of course — but it is worth asking if law, science, medicine, politics, and economics have been better off freed from any influence of religion or people of faith? And further, are we really fretting here about “direct oversight” of religion? What in the world could that mean in our day and age? Never in American history have we had anything close to “direct oversight by religion” in any matter of public arrangement.

No, what we are really fretting about, persistently and constantly as a society in our day, is the fear that religion might have any influence at all in the things that really matter in our society. We seem gripped by fear, mortified in fact, that someone’s faith might somehow come out into the open and actually make a difference in the way one performs his or her public duty or professional performance.

How have we come to this? We are close here to living in a culture that is hell-bent on airbrushing the influence of Christian faith and conviction out of the public arena, even out of our history. What nonsense that a Christian could or should eliminate one’s deepest personal convictions from informing judgment or performance, and yet that is precisely what is suggested in these public debates.

On the very positive side of all of this, it is my deepest of convictions that Christians have a great deal to offer that is of immense value to all areas of culture and society. We actually should be turning to people of faith for answers, for insight, and wisdom. Rather we seem to be saying that people of faith should have no voice. And that’s ridiculous and damaging in the long run for our society.

We must certainly affirm the separation of church and state. That is the law of the land, and it is a very healthy principle on both sides of the equation. But when it comes to these concerns about Chief Justice Roberts, or you or me, speaking as Christians into the great issues of our day — this is not at all what was intended by the separation of church and state by our American founders. The fierce battle to completely secularize our culture is not the same thing as the protection of both church and state in the intended separation.

We can do better than this, can’t we?