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Ethics and Religion Talk: Does Your Tradition Support the Separation Between Church and State? part 1

Taylor asks, “Do you believe in a separation of church and state?”

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

Taylor’s question elicited responses from nearly every member of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel. We’ll open our ninth year of the column this week with half of the panel’s responses. Watch for the other half at the beginning of next month.

The Rev. Rachel J. Bahr, pastor of Plymouth UCC, responds:

“In as much as the separation of church and state protects us from religious imperialism and extremism, yes I do. I believe that our law and policy should provide individuals with the freedom to practice their religion, without imposing this on the masses.”

Linda Knieriemen, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

“Absolutely! Who wouldn’t want the assurance of free exercise of religion without fear of government interference? What I see today however is a misunderstanding and misuse of this foundational principle to suggest that religion and politics shall not be mentioned in the same sentence. Separation of church and state does not mean that social issues should not be mentioned in sermons or that churches should not offer their property as sanctuary for undocumented immigrants avoiding deportation or that I as a pastor should not run for senate or attend a political rally. There is no conflict between wearing both a flag lapel pin and and sporting a ‘What Would Jesus Do’ bracelet. But there is no doubt about which requires a greater loyalty.

“When the priorities of my government diverge from the teachings of Jesus I have a responsibility to first be awake to that divergence and then name it. The Apostle Paul writes that civil magistrates are to be obeyed except when they use their authority to oppress. As a religious leader it’s my responsibility to be awake to such situations and teach my congregation how the principles of our faith address such wrongs.”

Father Michael Nasser, who writes from an Eastern Christian perspective and is Pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox Christian Church, responds:

“In some sense, bringing the influence of the divine into our worldly governance would be ideal... at least in theory. As the record of what we Christians call the ‘Old Testament’ shows, God's early reluctance to provide Israel with a king was understandable once the results were in. Eastern Christianity also held up the ideal for a time, uniting church and state in the Byzantine Empire, one of the longest standing empires in world history. While this unity did bring many blessings to the world, ultimately it can be shown that in a pluralistic world with adherents of many religions (and now growing number with no religion), a separation of church and state is a more healthy approach.”

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Adjutant Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“Yes, I do believe in a separation of church and state, but I do not believe these two groupings are mutually exclusive. The Catholic Church defines ‘society as a group of persons bound together organically by a principle of unity that goes beyond each one of them’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 459). The Church recognizes that a society, or in response to this question, a state, is both visible and spiritual… the latter is in reference to the society reflecting on the past and looking to the future (ibid., p. 459). In other words, society does not exist to be an end in itself… but it is to focus on offering a free, secure, and justice mode of life while providing an environment in which human persons may develop a spiritual relationship with God (ibid., p. 460).

“I assert, despite a separation between church and state, both exist to support the lives of human persons. The state’s role is to govern the day-to-day communal living of individuals so faith traditions may focus on leading people to eternal life.​”

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“The term means different things to different people. There has always been a tension between those who envision a state that fully embraces a radical pluralism, and others who maintain that due to certain historical events and some creative fiction, Christianity holds a special ranking amid all other world views. Sadly, there are still legislative bodies here in the US where invocations other than Christian or Jewish are not fully welcome.  Of course, there are some who believe we could get along just fine without anyone praying before proceeding with the business of government.

“There is no question that the majority religion of any nation will impact the ethos and mores of its citizens to a greater extent than others. But those adherents should not make those of minority faiths feel like ‘guests’ in their own country. There is very informative book that was just published entitled ‘White Christian Privilege.’ It provides excellent context and history to this subject.”


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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