Sarah Palin, God and State

Steve Benen quite rightly goes after Sarah Palin’s aw-shucks brand of theocracy, but I think he misses a bit of nuance that deserves to be teased out. Fact is—according to the Louisville Courier-Journal—Sister Sarah “rejected any notion that ‘God should be separated from the state,’” not “church,” as Steve glosses it later in the piece.

It’s more than Palin’s usual sloppiness, I believe. While the Constitution bans an established state religion or a religious test for public office, it never actually bans religious motivations as the basis of public policy. That is to say, as a legal matter, it is acceptable for elected officials to vote consistent with their religious principles. It is even acceptable for them to say, “Well, I prayed on this, and this is what God told me to do. ” What is not okay is for them to say “This is what the Roman Catholic Church (or Southern Baptist Convention or United Church of Christ or . . . ) says, therefore it should be made law.”

In other words, the separation is between the human institutions of government and religious bodies, not government and God herself. I don’t recommend that our leaders run around citing a divine blessing for policy positions, but it is plainly their right to do so. The only way to truly separate God and state would be to ban religious believers from elected office. While that might please a few hardcore atheists, it wouldn’t satisfy the vast majority of Americans, nor would it pass the constitutional sniff test.

But therein lies the game. Palin and many of her like-minded friends would like you to believe that tolerating any form of separation between church and state—which is to say between secular government and a particular construal of God’s intentions—means that God (religious values, really) will be banned from the public square. And who but Sister Sarah can defend those values?

So not to put too fine a point on it, I don’t think Palin really intends to tear down the wall of separation, though she probably wouldn’t mind seeing it collapse. But what I think she’s really after is to depict herself as the champion of All That Is Good And Right And Decent And Even Tangentially Related To Babies With Down’s Syndrome. She clearly wants to become Saint Sarah more than President Palin, especially if it keeps those lucrative media contracts coming in.

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