Religious Liberty: A Trip to Washington DC

Published: October 16, 2013

While most students at Wake Forest University School of Divinity reveled in the freedom of a four day weekend, some made a trip to Washington D.C. to explore the issue of church and state in American government. The weather mirrored the mood of the nation’s capital in the midst of the government shutdown. Cold, rain clouds dominated the sky as a flock of Wake Divinity students braved the foreboding atmosphere to engage leaders in government and nonprofits on the issue of separation of church and state.

The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty extended great hospitality by hosting the group during meetings and taking time to discuss the Committee’s work. Notable speakers include Rob Boston of Americans United, Melissa Rogers of The Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives, Kathleen Kennedy Townshend- former Lieutenant Governor of Maryland-, J. Herbert Nelson- Director of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. Office of Public Witness, Robbie Jones of the Public Religious Research Institute, Brent Walker, Holly Hollman, and Nan Futrell of the Baptist Joint Committee. This lineup includes a variety of professions that deal with church and state in some capacity. Each person had a valuable perspective to show the class.

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Photo provided by Alyssa Szymanski

No time was wasted on this trip. Even the journey to Washington D.C. contained opportunity to frame the topic in a local context. The class viewed Scott Burdick’s documentary film “In God We Trust?” on the bus ride. Burdick interviewed key players in the town of King’s controversy over flying the Christian flag at a veteran’s memorial along with experts in history and church/state politics. The film offered a glimpse of the real world struggle to define the proper relationship of religion and government.

Although it is not at the forefront of current political debacles, controversy over church and state has plagued Americans since colonial times. Immigrants who came to the New World to escape persecution often fell into persecuting subsequent migrants who held differing religious practices. Despite our long history of dealing with these issues, there are still ambiguous areas and new cases that arise. Dissension continues as people, government officials, and courts struggle to define the role of religion in public life. The continuing dialogue around the issue especially pertains to how we view and acknowledge our history. A current case involving prayer at town meetings, Greece v. Galloway, will go before the Supreme Court in November.

Despite the miserable weather and inconvenience of the shutdown, students consider this trip a success. A variety of speakers gave their individual perspectives inspiring the divinity students to use our education and leadership positions to continue conversations and further religious freedom. Discussion with speakers and professors helped clarify the role of church and church leaders. This unique opportunity for intense engagement challenged students to think critically and consider what role we will play in the continuing debate over the issue of church and state.

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Elizabeth Corney
First Year MDiv