Having grown up in a conservative evangelical background, I had always assumed that the separation of church and state was one of those "liberal" ideas used by our atheistic secular culture to persecute Christians like me (totally ignoring the fact that with 75% of the American population claiming to be Christians, I really didn't have a right to consider myself a persecuted religious minority). I thought that we really were a "Christian nation", or that if we weren't, we ought to be. I used to fight about whether the Founding Fathers really meant to keep religion out of government, or whether they were simply trying to protect religion from government interference (never considering that perhaps it was both). I even knew that the phrase "wall of separation between church and state" was not actually in the Constitution, but had come from something Thomas Jefferson once said, and since everyone knew that Jefferson was really a deist that had cut out all the parts of the Bible he didn't like, that just reinforced my assumption that "separation" was an anti-Christian atheistic ideal.
However, the great irony is that I didn't realize until much later that the idea separation didn't originate with Jefferson at all. In fact, that "wall of separation" phrase was written by Jefferson in a reply to a group of Baptists in which he was simply agreeing with their views on religious liberty. In other words, separation, far from being a secularist, atheist idea, actually originated among Christians, and among Baptists no less! I had been raised a Baptist and attended Baptist churches for most of the the first 26 years of my life, and yet I had never been given the slightest inkling that separation of church and state had always been one of the primary theological distinctions of the Baptist tradition. In fact, we invented it!
The concept dates back at least to Martin Luther's "doctrine of two kingdoms", but was more significantly promoted by the Anabaptists, who faced intense persecution from both Catholics and Protestants wielding the power of the State against them. Founding leader of the Baptists in England (the Baptists were a fusion of Anabaptist and Puritan views), Thomas Helwys, actually wrote one of the earliest statements on religious liberty in 1612 in a note to King James, which subsequently landed him in prison where he died a few years later. And later, in the early days of the United States, we have Baptist preachers like Isaac Backus and John Leland to thank for their vociferous support of separation for the freedoms we now enjoy.
What many conservative Christians, and ironically most Baptists in America these days don't realize is that the separation of church and state is a good thing for them. When you are in the majority in a nation, as Christians now are, it may seem like an annoyance, but in the early days of nation, evangelicals like the Baptists were very much in the minority and were rightly fearful that interference by the church in government affairs would mean the sanctioned persecution of smaller sects like themselves by established churches like the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, or Roman Catholics. To understand the importance of not allowing any establishment of religion by the government, evangelicals need only to imagine how they would feel if official government sponsored religion meant Roman Catholic religion (as is often the case in Latin America) or perhaps even Mormonism (as is sometimes the case in parts of Utah). For those Baptists who gripe about taking prayer out of the public schools, I wonder how they'd feel if such school sponsored prayer included a prayer to Mary or the saints. For those who want the Bible taught in the public schools (and not simply as a work of literature or history, but as something "more"), I ask, whose interpretation of the Bible? Would they be as happy if the Bible is taught with a liberal mainline spin, or a Pentecostal spin, or a Calvinist spin, or a Catholic spin?
Two hundred years ago conservative evangelicals were smart enough to realize that keeping direct religious influences out of the government was in everyone's best interests, including their own. It's sad to see how much has changed. However, not all hope is lost. For instance, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty is a coalition that represents over 10 million Baptists and is active in upholding the traditional Baptist distinctive of church-state separation. And beyond the Baptists, there are still many, many Christians in both conservative denominations and elsewhere that are increasingly wary of the theocratic rhetoric of the Religious Right. There is a massive shift that is occurring right now among evangelicals, and I am hopeful that support for church-state separation among conservative Christians is one of those ideas that will soon become more of the norm than the exception.
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