Two weeks ago on Nov. 2, 11 states amended their constitutions and denied marriage rights to same-sex couples. That same day, Americans cited moral values as the most important election issue and re-elected a president who says Jesus Christ has been the most influential figure in his life. If ever there were any doubt, let it be resolved now that there is none: morality and politics have officially mixed, and most Americans don’t have a problem with it.
Others, though, are troubled by the fusion of moral values and politics. Liberal commentators across the country are bemoaning morality’s place in American politics. Their argument is that morality has no place in politics because of its intrinsic basis in religion. Our founding fathers, these commentators continue, made this explicit with the separation of church and state.
If you read slate.com, watch CNN, or listen to National Public Radio, you’ve probably heard something along these lines before. Unfortunately, for all its zip as a sound bite, it lacks substance.
The First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof … ” But if you didn’t actually read the text of the First Amendment, and instead relied on liberal commentators for your constitutional analysis, you’d think the First Amendment explicitly limits the state’s use of moral values to shape legislation. And, of course, you’d be wrong.
The Establishment Clause (“respecting an establishment of religion”) prevents the government from endorsing or supporting religion. The Free Exercise Clause (“prohibiting the free exercise thereof”) prevents the government from outlawing or substantially burdening the exercise of religious practices. The “separation of church and state,” which is nowhere to be found in the Constitution, and which was first used in a letter by Thomas Jefferson to assuage Baptist fears that Congregationalism would become the national religion, does not explicitly address the issue of morality in politics. If anything, Jefferson’s letter reinforces the notion that the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses specifically address religion’s place in the American political landscape, not morality’s.
Of course, it would be na