Friday, April 25, 2014

Why Christians Should Support Separation of Church and State

Not many years ago, I began hearing people say, “The word separation isn’t in the First Amendment.” They would then go on to explain how they believed the concept of a separation of church and state is the work of the Devil to keep churches out of politics. Christians have been shooting themselves in the foot by defining Separation of Church & State as something it is not.

We see the words “separation between Church & State” in an 1802 letter. If you go back and read the letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the committee of the Danbury Baptist Association, you’ll see that it says more than just that the First Amendment builds “a wall of separation between Church & State.” He also makes the statement, “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God.” Thomas Jefferson goes on to define the powers of government with the statement, “the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions.”

In Thomas Jefferson’s way of thinking, what a man believed was solely between the man and his God. The fear of the Danbury Baptist Association was that the First Amendment was creating a situation in which the Government was authorizing religion, but then could later take it away. They obviously didn’t realize how difficult it would be to repeal an amendment in the years to come. Thomas Jefferson’s use of the phase “wall of separation” was to give them a mental picture of what the First Amendment does.

One side of the wall is “make no law…prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Taken by itself, this gives religion free reign. If a child wants to pray, or carry a Bible, or offer incense to Buddha, this clause prevents the government from saying he can’t. The other side of the wall is “make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This is what prevents the government from giving special treatment to one religion over another and limits individual religious groups by preventing them from having special power within the government.

So, whether you like the phrase “wall of separation” or not, the First Amendment clearly builds a wall between the power of the State and the power of Church. The question remains, is that something that Christians should favor?

In practice, things get a little fuzzy. People talk about the good ol’ days when teachers used the Bible to teach reading and led the students in prayer before class started in the morning. I have no way of verifying that that kind of stuff happened, because that wasn’t going on when I was in school either. And then you have teachers telling students they can’t bring their Bibles to school, even though they asked students to bring their favorite books. “That’s what ‘separation of Church and State’ gets us,” some people say. The problem with basing on opinion on what we see happening or what we think used to happen is that those things may not be pure examples of separation of church and state.

What many people don’t realize is that Baptists have historically stood in support of the separation of church and state. In the New Hampshire Baptist Confession of Faith (1833) it is worded like this:

We believe that civil government is of divine appointment, for the interests and good order of human society; and that magistrates are to be prayed for, conscientiously honored and obeyed; except only in things opposed to the will of our Lord Jesus Christ who is the only Lord of the conscience, and the Prince of the kings of the earth.

The Doctrinal Statement of the Baptist Missionary Association of America spells it out in more detail:

Human government was instituted by God to protect the innocent and punish the guilty. It is separate from the church, though both church and state exercise complementary ministries for the benefit of society (Matt. 22:21).
Christians should submit to the authority of the government under which they live, obeying all laws which do not contradict the laws of God, respecting officers of government, paying taxes, rendering military service, and praying for the welfare of the nation and its leaders (Rom. 13:1-7; I Peter 2:13, 17; I Tim. 2:1, 2). They should vote, hold office, and exercise influence to direct the nation after the principles of Holy Scripture.
Civil authority is not to interfere in matters of conscience or disturb the institutions of religion (Acts 4:18-20), but it should preserve for every citizen the free exercise of his religious convictions.
Churches should receive no subsidy from the government, but they should be exempt from taxation on property and money used for the common good through worship, education, or benevolence.

It is a doctrine that has been forged through much persecution. There was a time in history when the Catholic Church (which was a product of the Roman government) held much power in the government, and they used that power to persecute those who opposed their beliefs. Many of the persecuted held the beliefs that we Baptists hold. In some parts of the world, Islam controls the government. While there are Christians living in those areas as well, it is difficult for them to practice their religion. When the wall of separation is weak, persecution comes.