Successful republican governments rest on a separation between what is public and what is private. Matters of religious worship — celebrating one's conceptualization of God — are private. Separating religion from government preserves the integrity of both.
That idea is centuries old. In the 1500s, both Niccolo Machiavelli and Martin Luther argued for separation of church and state. Machiavelli argued that religion should be expelled from politics to protect politics, while Luther argued that politics should be expelled from religion to protect religion.
One of the more recent altercations between church and state at Iowa State includes a petition offered by several professors to cancel one course, Finance 290X: Application of Biblical Insight into the Management of Business/Organization. The textbook that was supposed to be used in the course was motivational speaker Dave Anderson's book "How to Run Your Business by THE BOOK: A Biblical Blueprint to Bless Your Business."
As a publicly funded institution, Iowa State is a state actor. That means that the university and the people working for it are bound by the same constitutional restrictions as the federal government, including the First Amendment's establishment clause, which prohibits Congress from making any "law respecting an establishment of religion."
But offering an experimental, independent study finance course that teaches biblical business ethics does no harm to either church or state by appearing among the course offerings of a public university.
There are several practical reasons why the concerns of the professors petitioning for this course's cancellation are misplaced. The course is experimental, not yet a permanent part of the university catalog. Any class needs to be tried out and evaluated before decisions can be made about whether it should be offered. It will be evident, when grades are given at the end of the course, whether they were allocated on students' agreement with the professor and textbook author or their scholarly ability.
Further, Finance 290X is an independent study course. It is not mandatory and, even more so than other electives, taking it would require a specific interest in operating a business along biblical lines. By offering it, the university is not privileging one religion over another or promoting a religion — it is diversifying the course offerings available to students and potentially enriching their opportunities.
Beyond these more practical matters, which indicate that the course is not an issue, there is a more intellectual reason for allowing the course as planned. The Supreme Court has ruled again and again that, to hear a case, there must be an actual case or controversy. There must be some kind of harm that befell an individual.
I argue that unless the course somehow prevents students from worshipping God their own way, it causes no harm. Separation of church and state does not exist so that people can walk through their lives without having their beliefs questioned. It exists as a protection for freedom of conscience. It is a believer's own responsibility to maintain his beliefs during crises of faith.
Taking it may even be a valuable or enriching experience. It could be worth more, even, than taking any diversity course in balkanized departments such as African and African American Studies, American Indian Studies, Latin American Studies or Women's Studies.
We educate students all the time about other religions. We hold that learning about other cultures is an essential part of comprehensive education. Separation of church and state means that no education about religion happens in a public university to the same extent that this country being America means that foreign languages are excluded from education.
Offerings this semester in the religion department, aside from Religion in America (which I know for a fact, since I took it, includes descriptions of the major American religions' practices) include Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion; Religious Traditions of India; Introduction to Islam; and Catholic Social Thought.
If we allow some professors to teach about the social implications of some religions, why not allow other professors to teach about the business management implications of others? The only distinction that I can find seems to be that the textbook for and design of Finance 290X is its use of a nondenominational evangelical perspective instead of something more traditional.