Balancing Church and State

Rob Boston, senior policy analyst for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, speaks with students Monday at Bradley.

By Tim Belter ’13
February 12, 2013

Rob Boston, senior policy analyst for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, spoke Monday evening at Bradley and asked a simple question about a, at times, difficult and discordant topic.

“How can we all get along in this brave new world of religious pluralism?” Boston asked.

In his speech, Boston often looked to America’s Founding Fathers to define the place of religion in public life and emphasized the importance of respecting the diversity of belief in the country. He believes that some have defined freedom of religion as freedom for their specific religion, and he spoke of a need to recognize the rights of people of different faiths or no faith at all.

“One of the great themes of religious liberty in this country is you get to do what you like, but you don’t get to tell me what to do,” Boston said. “Religious groups have a right to speak, but they cannot require anyone to listen or follow.”

Dr. Jackie Hogan, chair of the Department of Sociology and the Intellectual and Cultural Activities Committee, introduced Boston, who was making his second visit to Bradley. Each semester, the committee brings a wide variety of noted speakers to campus for public lectures and classroom discussions.

Through a series of “ground rules” for religious expression and freedom, Boston described ways to respect the rights of everyone while preventing any one group from receiving special treatment.

Some very real threats to religious freedom have occurred in recent years, such as houses of worship that are blocked from opening on the basis of the faith they celebrate, or public school officials mandating prayer in classrooms. While the state plays an important role in protecting rights that are under threat, he said, “Government has no obligation to promote religion.”

Boston dove into America’s religious history as well, exploring misconceptions and little-known facts about the nation’s roots. He detailed Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s fight against the establishment of the Anglican Church in Virginia and explained how the phrase “Under God” was not inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954 during the Cold War.

Although the topic can be controversial, Boston projected a tone of respect and understanding, a tone shared by the speech’s attendees.

“I think some of his points hit a nerve with some people, but he handled himself very well in that regard,” said Steve Cyrwus, a senior finance major from Algonquin, Ill. “He paid attention to both sides.”

Another student felt that Boston raised tough questions about the role of faith and belief.

“There’s got be something that’s true or not true,” said sophomore psychology major Jarrett Lindsey. “I think we all have to work more to find out what’s true in a loving way.”

That spirit of open-mindedness fit well with one of the main goals of Boston’s speech. As he wrapped up his prepared remarks, he appealed to the audience to reflect on their beliefs using two powerful tools.

“Your reason and your intellect,” he said.