Some Words on the Separation of Church and State

“I hope the traditional American regard for the separation of church and state will never be interpreted as an excuse for either to preempt – or ignore – the vigorous pursuit of human dignity and freedom which are the legitimate concern of both church and state.”
Sargent Shriver | Chicago, IL | January 15, 1963

Our Quote of the Week is a reminder that no matter our political or spiritual beliefs, the “vigorous pursuit of human dignity and freedom” is something we ought to have in common and that our religious institutions ought to vigorously defend.

In 1963, an interfaith group of leaders from around the country, including Sargent Shriver and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gathered in Chicago for the National Conference on Religion and Race. It was during this conference that Sargent Shriver spoke these words. He referred to laws and government as “coarse and inefficient instruments for remolding social institutions or illuminating the dark places of the human heart.” He then called on “those institutions whose task it is to teach moral values” to take an active role in battling discrimination and hatred.

Sargent Shriver maintained that the separation of church and state was an important tenet in the United States. He stressed, however, that both the church and the state should prioritize the welfare of human beings. Because this was something that both had in common, therefore, issues such as racism, which threatens “human dignity and freedom,” must be addressed by both and cannot be dealt with through laws alone.

In the speech, he poses a challenging question:

“As a layman, for example, I wonder why I can go to church 52 times a year and not hear one sermon on the practical problems of race relations.”

And he goes on to make a compelling case that houses of worship can play a central role in safeguarding the welfare of all people, ending with:

“A religious scholar has written that the church ‘should be swiftest to awake to any individual suffering, bravest to speak against any wrong, and strongest to rally the moral force of the community against everything that threatens the better life among men.’ That today’s religious institutions are equal to this grand role is demonstrated by this conference and by the distinction of those who have came to participate in deliberations on this most vital issue. The difficulties ahead are many. But we should be grateful for the opportunity given to religion today to wage a moral struggle as difficult, as hazardous and as important as many great battles of the past. For in such a battle we help not only those we fight for, but we are able to reconfirm and strengthen our own purpose and mission. We must be grateful for such a test.”

With his words, Sargent Shriver challenged faith-based institutions to do their share in building a more inclusive, loving, and just society. May we take up this challenge today, no matter what our beliefs or political affiliations.

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Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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