Saturday, March 22, 2008
Blog Against Theocracy: We Invented Separation
This weekend is the official "Blog Against Theocracy" blogswarm. The idea is to post reflections supporting the separation of church and state.

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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posted by Mike Clawson at 10:25 PM | Permalink |


At 3/23/2008 12:01:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous

Great post. It really irks me when people show those videos in Sunday School trying to "prove" from manuscript evidence that America was really (secretly) a Christian nation. It is hogwash and is simply bad historical scholarship. Thanks for this well informed piece.


At 3/24/2008 08:57:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous

It's pretty easy to poke holes in some conservative notions about Christian America, school prayer and the like.

I think it's harder to explore the parameters of separation of church and state, and just what is (or should be) meant by that phrase.

Have you read Yale professor Stephen Carter's "The Culture of Disbelief"? Carter isn't an evangelical nor always a conservative, but he argues that the concept of separation of church and state has been expanded beyond what was ever intended and indeed, beyond what is healthy for the nation. From a review:

"The most powerful message of The Culture of Disbelief is that religion has been trivialized in America. By religion, professor Carter is referring to any worshipping group that believes in a supernatural God and that actually makes demands on its members, in this life, based on its beliefs about the nature and character of God. He notes that "More and more, our culture seems to take the position that believing deeply in the tenets of one's faith represents a kind of mystical irrationality, something that thoughtful, public-spirited American citizens would do better to avoid. If you must worship your God, the lesson runs, at least have the courtesy to disbelieve in the power of prayer; if you must observe your sabbath, have the good sense to understand that it just like any other day of the week." According to Mr. Carter, this development is both unfortunate and dangerous to our religious freedoms in America.

This bias has encouraged some of our public institutions to accept religious prejudice as neutrality . . . According to Carter, "The consistent message of modern American society is that whenever the demands of one's religion conflict with what one has to do to get ahead, one is expected to ignore the religious demands and act...well...rationally."

". . . How have these founding ideas about church and state been applied recently in our society? Not very well according to Mr. Carter. The Supreme Court, whose duty it is to interpret the Constitution, has arrived at something called the Lemon test, an appropriate name because it is nearly impossible to apply. It includes three criteria for a statute to satisfy the requirements of the First Amendment. First, the law must have a secular purpose; second, it must neither advance nor inhibit religion; and finally, it must not cause excessive state entanglement with religion.

It is apparent to many that this ruling by the Court works in favor of those trying to build an impenetrable wall between religious belief and our government. Professor Carter notes that if this ruling is taken seriously one would have to question the legality of religiously motivated civil rights legislation. Another question is whether or not one can act in a manner that neither advances nor inhibits religion? For instance, does the government advance religion if it grants tax relief to parents who send their children to private schools? If so, does denying the tax relief inhibit religion by causing parents to be taxed twice for their children's education?

Carter notes that even the Court has had difficulty in applying this set of standards, mainly because of the way it has defined what is meant by a secular purpose. The Court often focuses on the motivation for a piece of legislation, rather than its political purpose. In other words, the criteria that many would like the Court to use in determining secular purpose would be to ask if the legislation is pursuing a legitimate goal of government or not, rather than inquiring into the religious motivation of the bill's sponsors. As Professor Carter writes, "The idea that religious motivation renders a statute suspect was never anything but a tortured and unsatisfactory reading of the [establishment] clause.... What the religion clauses of the First Amendment were designed to do was not to remove religious values from the arena of public debate, but to keep them there."


At 3/30/2008 09:21:00 AM, Blogger Donna D

Hi Mike. May I ask how hold you are? Because when I was a teenager and going to church in the 1970s, churches -- even evangelical and fundamentalist ones -- fully supported the separation of church and state. It wasn't until the 1980s and when I moved to the south, that I noticed churches and Christian groups starting to get involved in politics. Before that, it was considered unspiritual. "Give unto Caesar," and all that. The church was supposed to be unsullied from the world, and politics was seen as something anathema.

In the 1980s, the emphasis seemed to move from changing individual lives through the saving grace of Jesus to changing society through politics.

Just my observations.



At 3/30/2008 03:23:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Hi Donna,

I was born in 1978, so yeah, by the time I became politically aware, evangelicals were already known for being very politically active. I grew up listening to James Dobson and Focus on the Family on the radio (my mom's choice, not mine) and can recall plenty of the boycotts and political crusades they were constantly advocating in the '80s and '90s.

And you're right, the mid-70's and 80's were when it started changing. Most sociologists and historians will tell you that it was the rise of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority and their help in getting Ronald Reagan elected that really kicked off evangelical involvement in politics. Falwell was really an innovator in this regard. Prior to him, as you said, most evangelicals tended to eschew political involvement. Some historians will go so far as to say that the rise of the Religious Right and the entre of evangelicals into the political sphere is the single most important development in American politics over the past 30 years.


At 3/30/2008 03:36:00 PM, Blogger Donna D

Sadly that's true. This country has been going down the tubes since Reagan. Sigh. But that's off topic, I guess. :-)

Have you read Thy Kingdom Come by Randall Balmer? I agree with almost everything he has to say.


At 3/30/2008 04:08:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

I've not read that one yet, but it's on my list.


At 3/30/2008 04:35:00 PM, Blogger Donna D

Definitely recommended. I gave a copy to my born-again mother and she recently asked me for a few more copies to pass around to people at her church. Amen to that.