The myth of separation of church and state
September 14, 2004
I am amazed that so many Christians echo with great fervor the phrase, “Separation of church and state” … but, with a contemporary secularized world-life view, not with the same world-life view our founding fathers had over 230 years ago. Today, the idea of “separation of church and state” has been stood on its ear. First, consider the actual wording of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Why was this the first amendment? Because our Founding Fathers were well acquainted with the “state churches” of Europe from where they had come. These ‘state churches’ were not only non-evangelical, but they were harshly oppressive — especially to Baptists. State churches are supported by taxes imposed on every citizen. In England, it is the Anglican church founded by Henry VIII; in Germany, Lutheranism; in Italy and Spain, Roman Catholicism, just to name a few. With the First Amendment, our Founding Fathers said, “No state church!” To which we all readily agree.
Another essential portion of our First Amendment says, “… or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Their intent is obvious. The government is to stay out of the affairs of the church and not restrict its ministry.
Today, there are local governments in our nation that have tried to limit Christians from even having Bible studies in their homes. They cite home Bible studies as violations of zoning laws; while at the same time allowing huge drunken parties in the same neighborhoods. Zoning laws against home Bible studies ignore the First Amendment’s instruction which guarantees that the church has “… the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” In one county where I pastored, there are no zoning provisions for a church at all. Churches are only permitted to build and exist with special permission of the county commissioners on a case-by-case basis.
The last phrase of the First Amendment opens the door for the church to be actively involved in the life of our government when it says, “… and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The First Amendment and its intent is clear. The government is to stay out of the affairs of the church, but the church can actively be involved in the affairs of the government. So, where in the world did we get the idea of “separation of church and state”? That terminology is not in our constitution.
“The Wall of Separation” first appeared in 1802 in a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists. He borrowed the metaphor from an earlier Baptist leader, Roger Williams, who wrote:
“…when they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the candlestick, and made His garden a wilderness, as at this day. And that therefore if He will eer please to restore His garden and paradise again, it must of necessity be walled in peculiarly unto Himself from the world …”
According to Williams, the “wall of separation” was to protect the “garden of the church” from the “wilderness of the world.” Today the metaphor has been stood on its head, and the wall is thought to protect the state from the church.
The terminology, “separation of church and state”, is found in a constitution. It is Article 59 in the Constitution of the former Soviet Union. I hardly think we want to pattern our government after the old communist empire.
In 1947, The Everson Decision, authored by an atheist, Leo Pfeiffer, for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, is where the doctrine of the “wall of separation” was introduced into American thinking. Here is another example of judicial activism rather than simple interpretation of our constitution.
I think it would be well for us to remember the cultural mix of our country in the days of its formations as well. In 1776, our country was 98 percent Protestant, 1.8 percent Roman Catholic and .2 percent Jewish. This was the world-life view of our founding fathers as they framed our constitution.
There is an inexhaustible supply of books, sermons and essays on the subject of separation of church and state. My purpose in this note to you is to bring historical Baptist thinking back to the forefront. Remembering that Baptist minister Roger Williams in Pennsylvania was one of the first to put definition to the doctrine. Although our constitution is clear, it seems to me we have strayed a long way from its intent both in our thinking and our practice.
“A king’s heart is a water channel in the Lord’s hand; He directs it wherever He chooses.” (HCSB) Prov. 21:1.
“…I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (HCSB) 1 Tim. 2:1-4.