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Separation Anxiety

The debate over religion's role in public life is nothing new ... especially in Pennsylvania. After all, it was the Keystone State that presidential candidate Barack Obama was talking about when he mentioned "bitter" Americans turning to God and guns. And it was here, too, where "intelligent design" suffered its biggest courtroom setback, in 2005. 

The debate has long pitted secularists advocating a clear separation between church and state against believers seeking to eliminate the metaphorical wall. Today, liberals and conservatives still fight over religion's proper role in politics and public life. But one local professor argues that liberals should change their tune and stop fighting the losing battle against religion.

In a Netroots Nation panel on Fri., Aug. 14, Duquesne law professor Bruce Ledewitz leads a discussion arguing that secularists should tear down the wall between church and state -- not build it up. The secularist professor's panel discussion, "A New Progressive Vision for Church and State," presents a case against a division, claiming that liberals could benefit, and even win the culture war against conservatives.

Separation Anxiety
Bruce Ledewitz

"Government can't push religion. I hold to that," he says. But "I want secularism to be open to religious traditions."

Ledewitz's theory is less religious than it is philosophical. He's not asking secularists to believe in God; instead, he says he wants them to interpret religious symbols more universally.

Take the controversy over the phrase "One nation under God," in the Pledge of Allegiance. Ledewitz, who has written two books on the church-state issue, says the phrase shares a religious and political meaning. While believers can choose to interpret it to mean that God exists, Ledewitz argues that everyone can accept the phrase as an absolute truth -- in other words, he says, "We stand under absolute values." 

"The government can't tell us that God exists," he says. But adopted as a universal value, the phrase "is a symbol of a political commitment."

Ledewitz says his argument is grounded in the Declaration of Independence. In it, he says, the founding fathers expressed a "political truth" that human rights are universal.

"We don't have to agree on theology," says Ledewitz. "All we have to agree on is politics."

Oddly enough, Ledewitz says, most of his theory's critics are on the political left, while his supporters are on the right. But he argues that both sides are mistaken. 

"[Conservatives] think they win," he says. "I know they don't."

Separation Anxiety
Rev. Janet Edwards

Why don't they? Ledewitz says the answer is simple: Republicans would no longer be able to run successful "pro-God" campaigns against Democrats, who are now largely perceived as "anti-God." Thus, he says, "They would instantly lose the culture war." 

At the Aug. 14 discussion, Ledewitz will make his case to three other panelists. They include Vic Walczak, legal director for Pennsylvania's American Civil Liberties Union, who successfully tried a landmark federal case in 2005 challenging the teaching of intelligent design in public schools. Joining them is Rev. Janet Edwards, an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, who found herself at the center of the gay-marriage debate after she was twice sanctioned by the church for presiding over the wedding of two women.

Walczak could not be reached for comment. Edwards says she agrees with Ledewitz's argument. 

"What Bruce is proposing is an interesting approach to create a space for people to come together," she says. "I think the universal principles are a start. They give us a common language."

But Ledewitz has his critics, including fellow panelist Frederick Clarkson.

"If he was making a baloney sandwich, he used the whole package," says Clarkson, a Massachusetts-based independent journalist who specializes in politics and religion. "[Ledewitz's theory] is piled high with false premises."

Clarkson argues that Ledewitz's proposal is an "insult" to both liberals and conservatives. "Who is he to tell religious believers and non-religious believers what to believe about God?" he says.

Specifically, Clarkson takes umbrage with the Duquesne professor's desire to interpret religious language and symbols in universal terms, calling it "false religious universalism." 

"I appreciate that [Ledewitz] is trying to solve a problem, but he's going about it the wrong way," says Clarkson. "He's saying, 'Hey, folks, let's have an interpretation that's convenient, so that we don't have to get mad about it.

"It's preposterous," he continues. "God means God. It doesn't mean 'universal values.'"

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