Church and State at the American Bible Society Prayer Breakfast

By Michael Leaser and Benjamin KafferlinNearly 200 church and government leaders met for a lively discussion on the Bible and the relationship between church and state at the American Bible Society’s annual prayer breakfast on February 8 in the Cannon Caucus room on Capitol Hill, which the Clapham Group helped facilitate.Keynote speaker Stephen Carter, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University, inspired the modern-day William Wilberforces and Thomas Gisbornes in attendance with a strong and thoughtful defense of the proper understanding of the Bible’s role in our culture. “No book has been as influential in Western Civilization as the Bible. The influence is so great that there is nothing in second place, and because of that, it is crucial that everyone be familiar with it.”Carter described the critical misunderstanding that many Americans have today about the separation of church and state. “The separation of church and state does not exist to protect the state from the church. It is to protect the church from the state.” He noted that “religion is the first subject of the first amendment [and that that clause on religion is there] to protect the religious sphere. It has no other function than that. That’s all. And anyone who suggests it has a different function is simply mistaken.”Carter also made an irenic appeal to the concept of democratic pluralism, which has allowed people of differing viewpoints to co-exist peaceably in this country. “Pluralism [is the sense] that there is no political issue on which reasonable people can’t hold different views. That’s the sense that we’ve lost. Unless we believe reasonable people can hold different views, we will never be able to sit down and have reasonable conversations about things like where to draw the line when we’re trying to figure out the limits of religious freedom versus the limits of state power.”Speaking to how religious viewpoints have been increasingly denigrated in America, Carter stressed that his audience cannot “allow [the separation of church and state] to be used as a cudgel to somehow suggest that some modes of thought are inferior to others, that somehow religion generally or the Bible in particular doesn’t belong in a democratic dialogue. That has to be resisted.” Go straight to the ABS website to learn more, and sign up for their newsletter!