Church and state debated, but certainly not reconciled |

Church and state debated, but certainly not reconciled

Susan Wood

Forget the average water cooler and dinner table discussion. As the Democratic National Convention unfolds this week, a group of concerned South Lake Tahoe citizens have taken up the thorniest of issues leading into the presidential election.

Politics and religion and the boundary that separates them came to light late Monday night at Lake Tahoe Community College, where more than 50 people answered the call of the controversial topic of church and state.

The crowd watched and discussed afterward a PBS documentary titled “The Jesus Factor,” which highlighted President Bush’s Christianity and its role in government.

The room full of people offered a sampling of opinions as diverse as the nation’s melting pot.

Some like Jenny Francis were simply pleased South Shore residents were bantering substantive issues. Many were unnerved that Bush appears to plug his faith into decisions affecting the federal government.

“What’s disturbing to me (with the film) is he said Congress stalled at passing his faith-based initiative, so he passed his own executive order. I love that he has his faith, but he has an exclusive club. I’m honoring all faiths. I think there’s room for all of us,” said Denese Schellink, pastor of Unity at the Lake.

Her comments characterizing Bush as a leader creating a divisive American society drew applause.

Others agreed to a certain extent, but they didn’t mind the role of government laying out more of the church carpet in policy making.

“We don’t follow him blindly. But these are basic principles. How can you separate from your relationship with God?” Diana Foster posed a perplexing question that dominated the premise of the community forum. Others backed her up by explaining one’s relationship with Jesus Christ as a personal one that’s hard to describe.

But it’s been said before: the personal is the political.

And it’s the religious intervention that worries some people – including Tahoe residents grappling with Bush’s convictions. Though seemingly well intended, there’s concern they may be threatening the foundation of the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment was cited on numerous occasions.

Norma Santiago even quoted former President James Madison in the reasons for drafting the landmark document as the framework for a society trying to escape religious persecution in Europe.

Santiago’s comments also prompted applause.

Nonetheless, Teri Boldt, who works for the El Dorado County Social Services Department, suggested that perhaps the government seeking more faith-oriented organizations to assist with federal programs might not be a bad idea based on the limited success of those without a strong spiritual base.

“And I don’t see him pushing his faith,” she said of Bush’s personal motives spilling into policy-making decisions.

To clergy leaders like local Baptist minister Thurston Ott, one could argue that Bush’s drive to advance religious policies may not make a difference in the grand scheme of prophecy. The world is on a pre-destined path.

“It’s his belief. At this juncture, it doesn’t make a difference to me,” he said Tuesday.

Ott said he sees evidence of a day and age when an increasing number of people no longer identify themselves as Protestants. The self-proclaimed label is deemed Christian not belonging to a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches.

“I’m not surprised by it when you have a society that takes prayer out of the schools,” he said.

With the exception of the 9/11 aftermath, many churches have seen either a slight decline in their congregations or no growth.

According to a recent University of Chicago study, only 53 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as having a religious preference – coining the term “none-of-the-above.” That’s 11 percent less than a decade ago.

The study, called “The Vanishing Protestant Majority,” attributes much of the findings to the coming of a younger America unable to connect with a denomination.

And in the recently released book, “Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest,” 22 percent fewer people affiliate themselves with a religion. In comparison, 40 percent link their identity to a denomination.

– Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at

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