The confirmation of Judge Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court seems a virtual certainty. Even if Senate Democrats stage a filibuster, which at this point seems unlikely, they cannot ultimately stop the confirmation.
Judge Alito for his part has been cautious in responding to questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee. It is obvious that he does not intend to tip his hand regarding his views on any number of hot button political issues.
But while Judge Alito has been cautious, his supporters have not. Leaders from the political and religious right have vigorously campaigned for his confirmation. It’s hard to imagine that this group would offer such enthusiastic support for an unknown quantity. They are convinced that Judge Alito is the long awaited conservative swing vote that will shift the balance of power on the court to the political right.
The ensuing shift will affect many areas of our national life, but none more critical than the constitutional mandate for a separation of religion from government—the infamous wall of separation. During his years as an appeals court judge, Alito favored greater accommodation for public religious displays. He clearly does not view the establishment clause of the First Amendment as creating a wall of separation.
For some time now the high court has barely maintained a majority on key church/state issues. A thin 5 to 4 margin in favor of separation has decided nearly every case. If the conservatives are right about Alito, the balance will surely shift.
But will that be a good thing for faith?
If the wall comes down we will witness a deepening confusion of the proper role of faith in our culture. This has already happened to a significant degree as elements of the Christian faith have been highly politicized.
In fact, faith is already so identified with certain political ideals that the very face of orthodoxy has changed. It’s not enough simply to believe in Jesus anymore, now we must also hold the proper view on taxes, abortion, and homosexuality in order to be a real Christian.
Even more critical, if the court takes the wall down, there will no longer be a legal hedge to stop incursions by the state into religious practice. Without the wall there will also be no legal way to stop dominant religious groups from using public property, property that belongs to all citizens, for religious purposes.
There are many who will celebrate such changes. They see the mixing of church and state as the path that will save our country. But the lessons of history remind us that in the past when the state has acted as an agent of God, the blood of innocents has flowed in the streets. And every time the church has acted as the state, the soul of faith has withered.
As the ancient proverb reminds us, be careful what you wish for, you may get it.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.