I have been a firm believer in the idea of “separation of church and state.” As I have read, and studied, and experienced, and read again, separation of church and state seems, to me, to be a necessity. I do not want our government establishing an “official” church or theology. Nor do I want them to keep me from gathering in a building to worship. I want the freedom that the First Amendment guarantees. It states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
For the purposes of this post, I’m more interested in the first idea regarding religion. The phrases “establishment of religion” and “prohibiting the free exercise thereof” are the two concepts that are key here. Lest you think this is not an issue, think again. Our nation has dealt with establishment and free exercise more than you think.
History tells us so.
In the 17th & early 18th centuries, “established” religion existed. The Congregational Churches in New England, whose roots were borne from our Puritan ancestors, prohibited any worship or gathering by those who professed beliefs otherwise. Theirs was a tentative mix of government and religion, since the laws in their community were enacted and enforced by church leaders. In other words, the government officials were church leaders.
The same could be said for the colonies in the south, where Anglican churches flourished. If you were a Baptist, or a Quaker, or, heaven forbid, a Catholic, you best prepare yourself for time in the stockade in the public square. Roger Williams, an early Baptist leader, experienced this first-hand, fleeing to the safety of Rhode Island where he established a community where religious liberty was a hallmark.
Baptists, who preached believer’s baptism – the belief that baptism follows conversion (as opposed to infant baptism) were among those most often persecuted. As a result, they wrote a letter to then president Thomas Jefferson, expressing concern that their state constitution did not provide the tenets of religious liberty. These Baptists, from Danbury, Connecticut, asked Jefferson to intervene.
Jefferson’s response was, and still is, historic. In his response, he says,
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature would “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
There it is – “a wall of separation between Church and State” – the phrase that has since been used to interpret laws and establish policy. The problem is, that’s not what the First Amendment sought to accomplish.
We can all agree that our nation should not establish an official religion. We live in a nation that establishes itself as a democracy, not a theocracy. Nor does our nation prohibit anyone from worshipping on any given day or place in a manner that they see fit. Baptist, Presbyterians, Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists – all worship freely without fear.
Yet, over the years, our nation has misinterpreted the First Amendment, like Jefferson, as a law that prohibits not only the the influence of government on religion, but vice versa – the influence of religion on government. Philip Hamburger, in his book Separation of Church and State, says
…there is reason to wonder why the religion clauses of the First Amendment differ from the words with which these clauses are most commonly interpreted…Yet, the phrase “separation between church and state” has also pointed to something more dramatic – a distance, segregation, or absence of contact between church and state.
While the First Amendment had no intention of building “a wall of separation”, it has been replaced by a legal interpretation that found its birth in Jefferson, and others. The First Amendment does not prohibit the disassociation of religion and government, it only prohibits the establishment. Religion must be free to express itself in every corner of this nation – from our schools to our courthouses to council meetings to congress. The free exercise of religion should abound “from sea to shining sea.”
In this time, when culture and society are moving away from God and a biblical morality, the First Amendment allows for those whose religion calls for them to “go and make disciples.” There is no separation. There is freedom.
And, always remember, love.