It's a shame that in their modern misguided zeal to read the first clause as mandating a complete separation of church and state, liberals do great damage to the second clause and defeat the overarching purpose of both: ensuring religious liberty.
Ever since the so-called Christian right began its organized activism during the 1980s, liberals (and some others) have become increasingly nervous about (and critical of) Christian influence in politics, let alone the public square.
This issue has reared its controversial head during the Republican presidential primary because of candidate Rick Santorum's unashamed and outspoken commitment to his Catholic faith and Christian values. It's not just leftists who are complaining; many on the right are, as well.
For years, there has been an uneasy alliance inside the Republican "big tent," between those who embrace social conservatism and those who would just as soon see it deleted from the party platform. With our anxiety about the national debt, economic issues are naturally at the forefront of people's concerns. Some believe that those who are still articulating social issues in this period of crisis are at least annoying and possibly detrimental to the cause of electing a Republican who can build a wide enough coalition to defeat the primary culprit in America's race to bankruptcy: President Barack Obama.
I think it's a false choice to say that we conservatives must pick between economic issues and social ones. It's also a mistake to believe there is a clear dichotomy between economic conservatives and social conservatives. As I've written before, Reagan conservatism is a three-legged stool -- economic, social and national defense issues -- and the three are compatible and probably embraced by most Republicans.
Our center-right tent is big enough to include libertarians, economic conservatives who either are indifferent to social issues or consider themselves socially liberal, and so-called neoconservatives, who tend to emphasize national defense issues over the other two -- although they might reject that characterization. We all must unite to defeat President Obama.
But with Santorum's rise in the polls, many are expressing their anxiety about his perceived religiosity and are depicting him as a threat to religious liberty.
Some are abuzz about his interview this past weekend with George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "This Week," in which Santorum stated that he does not believe separation of church and state is absolute. He stated that the First Amendment's free exercise clause guarantees that the church and its members have as much right to try to influence policy as anyone else. And he's absolutely correct.
Not only are the words "separation of church and state" not contained in the Constitution but this phrase from Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists does not mean what many people say it does.
The First Amendment's establishment clause says that Congress shall not establish a national church, because the Framers didn't want the government telling us whom or how to worship. Their overarching concern, then, was protecting religious liberty. The free exercise clause also strengthens the religious freedom guarantee.
The point is that both clauses are dedicated to religious liberty, and neither purports to ban religious expression from the public square or from the mouths of public officials.
No matter how expansively one reads the First Amendment's establishment clause, no one, including Jefferson, would have made the ludicrous argument that presidents (or other public officials) must leave their worldview at the door of the White House and govern apart from it, as if that would be possible. Advocating policy positions based on one's worldview is light-years away from establishing -- or even supporting -- a national religion.
Christian conservatives are not the ones demonstrating intolerance and threatening the freedoms of religion and religious expression. They would never consider being so presumptuous and tyrannical as to try to silence those who disagree with them, ban them from the public square, or advance the spurious argument that they are not entitled to advocate policies based on their worldview.
Ironically, it is probably the secular left that is most responsible for the dramatic rise and persistent influence of the Christian political right in politics, with their gross judicial activism in abortion jurisprudence and their judicial tyranny coercing states to accept same-sex marriage against the will of the people. They are the ones who demonize as "homophobes" and "bigots" those seeking to preserve traditional marriage. Christian conservatives don't try to shut them up, but many are now trying to shut us up -- through the specious application of the First Amendment, no less.
The last people anyone needs to fear on religious liberty are Christian conservatives, who are its strongest guardians. Above all others, they will fight to preserve everyone's right to express and practice his religion or non-religion as he pleases.