My friend, Dr. Michael Gabbert, senior pastor of Evergreen Baptist Church in the Tulsa, Okla., area, is an excellent researcher. He developed a series of insights in response to those who ask the question, “Pastor, who do we vote for?” Perhaps his careful insights will encourage you to speak out in the days leading up to decision day on Nov. 8:
Consider Thomas Jefferson—political theorist, statesman, diplomat. He was a scientist, an inventor, an architect and a farmer. He was also the author of the Declaration of Independence. As third President of the United States, he doubled the nation’s territorial claims through the Louisiana Purchase.
In the 1960s, President John Kennedy hosted a state dinner for a collection of Nobel Prize winners. In his opening welcome, he remarked, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and human knowledge that has ever gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined here alone.”
Jefferson was clearly a remarkable man. He was not an Evangelical Christian in the sense that we understand it, but he was a man committed to liberty of belief and freedom of thought.
He was a kindred spirit to a minority group of his day called “Baptists.” As such, he advocated full civil and religious liberty for members of religious minorities, like Baptists. The Danbury Connecticut Baptist Association once wrote to him in gratitude and support for his religious liberty positions. In reply, Jefferson wrote them a letter stating:
“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 should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church & State.”
“A wall of separation.” It’s not a constitutional phrase; it comes from Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury, Connecticut Baptists. He used it as a metaphor to describe what he saw as an appropriate separation between government and church. `
Today, people think this “wall of separation” suggests that government should have no influence on the church and that the church cannot have any influence on the government. We live in a generation where Christians are increasingly expected to maintain our religious beliefs and Christian practices privately. We’re told faith has no place in the public square.
This is not what the First Amendment provides. The First Amendment prohibits Congress from exercising institutional control in matters of religious conscience. Lawmakers have no stake in the religion business.
The cultural environment producing these amendments included the practice of tax-supported state churches, following a model inherited from various European nations. Once a denomination had been made the state church of a colony, they were granted special privileges. Tax money was made available to buy church property. Taxes were used to build church buildings. Public revenue paid ministry salaries. And as always, control followed money. Eventually, churches became instruments of the government. Political maneuvering secured pastoral appointments in the same way as judges, cabinet members, or other political appointees.
The principle that Baptists advocated (with close agreement from both Jefferson and Madison) was that the state should not be involved in establishing institutional religion and using taxes, forcibly taken from the citizenry, to benefit a privileged segment of the population. This limitation was never meant to silence the church’s prophetic voice in the public square, or to limit her moral presence in the culture at large.
In fact, the very day following Jefferson’s letter to Danbury Baptists, he attended a sermon by the Baptist radical, John Leland. There, Jefferson affirmed Leland’s position approving Christian influence toward the government, while, at the same time, denying institutional control by government over institutions of faith. The “wall of separation” was the metaphor Jefferson used to illustrate this conviction.
We are to be good citizens, faithful in the duties and obligations that accompany citizenship as long as those duties to Caesar do not compromise our higher loyalty to God. Those duties bound up in God’s image include things related to the human soul, to personality, to will and to conscience. Loyalty to the state, in my lifetime, has seldom ever contradicted loyalty to God; but the times, they are a-changing.
I’m a deeply patriotic person. I still get misty-eyed when I watch videos of our soldiers coming home to their families. I grew up in an elementary school where we said the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag every morning. However, as deeply ingrained as the American experience is in me, I can never allow allegiance to our American flag to supersede allegiance to the Kingdom secured by the blood of the Lamb. If the two come into conflict, we have to remember which Kingdom is mightier.
There are different requirements in these two realms. The state calls for respect, but God demands reverence. The state wants honor, but God wants worship. The state expects legal obedience, but only God can require spiritual obedience. The state calls for lawfulness, but only God can demand submission. The state wants harmony, God requires unity. The state calls for political allegiance, but God must have absolute loyalty.
We have no greater loyalty to anyone than King Jesus. As wise citizen Christians, we must cast ballots for the vision of freedom and justice for all, from the womb to the tomb and every person in between. Don’t be intimidated by letters or people who try to prohibit the free exercise of your faith at the church house or the marketplace. Be respectfully engaged in being convictionally courageous.