On collusion—not separation—of church and state

Photograph of the painting The Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch, 1890

Herb Strentz was dean of the Drake School of Journalism from 1975 to 1988 and professor there until retirement in 2004. He was executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council from its founding in 1976 to 2000.

Another nightmare of Iowa legislation is upon us in Senate File 2095 and House File 2454, companion bills lumped together as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (often known as RFRA). 

The legislation would be more appropriately labeled FACT, for Fearful, Arrogant, Callous Threats to Iowans’ civil rights. That’s because Senate File 2095 would turn upside down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that Congress approved and President Bill Clinton signed in 1993.

As Iowa Interfaith Alliance executive director Connie Ryan pointed out, the federal law had near unanimous support because it “was designed to protect the people from the government imposing its will on an individual’s religious freedom without a compelling reason,” such as public safety.

Instead of protecting religious beliefs from intrusion by government, the newly fashioned Religious Freedom Restoration Act would condone and encourage government intrusion on the civil rights of the religious and everyone else — exempting “true believers” from penalties for violating the civil rights those they deem unworthy or reprehensible. Robert Reich, who worked in the administrations of Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and was Bill Clinton’s secretary of labor from 1993 to 1997, expressed similar concerns in a recent column called “The Emerging Republican Theocracy.”

Any brief summary of the Ryan and Reich commentaries will understate the horrors awaiting us, now that the Iowa Senate passed Senate File 2095 on February 20, and the Iowa House approved the bill on February 29. The votes in both chambers fell strictly along party lines.

The essays by Ryan and Reich explain why the Religious Freedom Restoration Act has more to do with fear, arrogance and callousness. It may be even more troubling to consider what is Christian about Christian Nationalists and why those “nationalists” want collusion of church and state rather than separation. My last commentary for Bleeding Heartland provided some context for the connections between the MAGA movement and Christian nationalism.

Moreover, the term “Christian Nationalist” is an oxymoron if you take Christianity or patriotism seriously. (George Orwell drew a good distinction between “patriotism” and “nationalism” and explained why we should be patriotic, not nationalistic.)

Speaking of which, Jesus Christ provided some directions for a life faithfully lived in his Sermon on the Mount, as reported in Chapters 5-7 in the New Testament book of Matthew.

The best-known portions of the sermon are “The Beatitudes” in Matthew 5:3-12. That’s the list of several blessings and hope conferred upon those who are poor in spirit, mourn, are meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice, and others who suffer. The sermon also confers blessings upon do-gooders — the merciful, the peacemakers, the pure in heart.

Perhaps the Beatitudes resonate over the centuries because they relate to the personal impacts on our lives from forces we have little or no immediate control over — like highly partisan politics — and they do promise an eventual blessing.

For immediate needs and recompense, other parts of the Sermon on the Mount may provide solace, reason, and even humor.

For example, as executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, I worked for public and press access to government records and meetings and urged public agencies to be transparent and open. As Matthew 5:16 says: “(L)et your light shine before others, so thatthey may see your good works…” So I’d characterize those holding government accountable, like State Auditor Rob Sand, as “children of light.” Those ignoring the intent of the laws on openness I deemed “forces of darkness.”

Unfortunately, those whimsical characterizations have some merit. The GOP legislature with its super-majority continues to pass questionable bills, all but ignoring public concerns and bipartisan governance.

They do this, because they can. As Kathie Obradovich observed in a column for Iowa Capital Dispatch last year, Iowa Republican lawmakers have a “new power-tripping mantra: ‘Because we won.’”

But even those who won could benefit from lessons in reconciliation. Here are some sermonic thoughts, from Mathew 5:24-26:

(L)eave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

For five years, the Iowa House leaders did not seek reconciliation with Laura Belin. Their appointee (the chief clerk) denied her press credentials—until the Institute for Free Speech filed a lawsuit on her behalf.

And, speaking of going to court, Governor Kim Reynolds’ office withheld public records for many months, in some cases for more than a year. Iowa taxpayers had to cover more than $174,000 in attorney fees when the state finally settled three open records lawsuits against her office or administration.

Before telling Iowans how to live our lives with the likes of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the legislature and governor might clean up their own acts when complying with another part of the Sermon on the Mount and the thoughts about living in the light and seeking reconciliation.

Matthew 7: 3,5: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?… You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

Editor’s note from Laura Belin: Following Iowa House passage of Senate File 2095 on February 29, the governor’s office released this written statement from Reynolds:

The right of religious freedom is endowed upon us by our creator – not government. Our founders recognized this principle, and today the Iowa House took a step forward to protect it. Twenty-three states around the country, with both Republican and Democrat governors, have passed similar laws. Now, it’s Iowa’s turn.

About the Author(s)

Herb Strentz

  • RFRA

    RFRA was enacted to overturn the ruling in Employment Division v. Smith, but it does more than just restore the compelling interest test where a law is neutral toward religious activity and generally applicable. It also creates an exception to sovereign immunity. Generally, the state cannot be sue without it’s consent. RFRA allows a citizen to sue the state for violation of part of one right in the Iowa Bill of Rights. Free exercise is just one part of Article 1, Section 3.

    The general assembly shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; nor shall any person be compelled to attend any place of worship, pay tithes, taxes, or other rates for building or repairing places of worship, or the maintenance of any minister, or ministry.

    I think it would make more sense to waive sovereign immunity for the entire Iowa Bill of Rights. But, how did we ever even get to this point? The Bill of Rights should have been an exception to sovereign immunity from the start.

  • the irony of using Christian theology to make this argument is

    quite telling, the word of the day seems to be

  • Back to the roots

    Our country was founded from two distinct groups of white immigrants. First came religious fanatics like the Puritans, and then Europe exported their disenfranchised outlaws. The current Iowa legislature is just a toxic combination of the two.

  • New Title

    I have a new title, Restoring the Bill of Rights, one phrase at a time.

  • RFRA

    Under the language of the bill would it be permissible to sue the state for violation of the prohibition on requiring citizens to pay taxes to fund schools that have a religious affiliation? It would seem so under the provision that, “nor shall any person be compelled to attend any place of worship, pay tithes, taxes, or other rates for building or repairing places of worship, or the maintenance of any minister, or ministry.” Isn’t part of the tax money ($7,000 per student) being used by Reynolds to fund private religious schools used to “build or repair” those schools or pay for the salaries of those who “minister” to the students through religious instruction? That’s the argument used by anti-abortion folks back in the 80s (?) to eliminate government funding for Planned Parenthood. Money from the government is “pooled” with private contributions (here, tuition fees) so you can’t separate one from the other. Government funding was being “used” to provide abortions.