Today’s question comes from Sharon. She writes: “This is my understanding of Separation of Church and State: Before our forefathers came here, living in England, they were forced, by the government, to go to one particular church or denomination. When they came here, they wanted us to have the freedom to worship, as we saw fit. AS AN EXAMPLE, having prayer in public schools wouldn’t come under that, because, anyone, from any religion or denomination could pray to God. They wouldn’t be saying the children and their parents HAD to worship as they do. (I used this as an EXAMPLE because I didn’t want the discussion to be about prayer in schools, but about separation of church and state) What do you think?”
Thanks for the great question, Sharon. I’ve started writing a response twice to your question. Each time I was dissatisfied with my response.
I was dissatisfied with my earlier answers because I kept coming at the question from primarily a secular or legal perspective. It took me awhile to get there, but I finally am able to articulate from a spiritual perspective why I am such a strong supporter of the separation of church and state. Let’s see if I can articulate my position. Here it goes …
Some people are strong supporters of the principle of separation of church and state because their first concern is to protect the state from the church. Their primary concern is that social discord will result if the government first adopts and then promotes one religious perspective over another. For that reason, they support the separation of church and state.
While that concern is certainly valid, my primary reason for being a strong supporter of the principle is to protect the church from the state.
How does the mixing of the two endanger the church?
In order to answer that question, I look back at the history of the Christian movement itself. For the first three centuries of its existence, Christianity existed largely as a movement of the outcast and the marginalized. As such, I believe its manifestation was true to the spirit of Jesus teaching.
In the 4th Century, something happened that greatly affected the essence of the movement: the Roman Emperor, Constantine, converted to Christianity and the church became intimately wedded to the state. As a result of this the essence of the Christian movement was altered. Instead of being a movement of the outcast and marginalized, Christianity (particularly in the Western world!) because a movement of the powerful and privileged.
This showed up in a variety of ways. The support and establishment of the institutional church became a primary concern of the movement – and the commitment to the teachings and values of Jesus all too often became secondary.
Many Christians living in the United States have only come to know Christianity as an expression of the powerful and the privileged. When I look at the concerns that many modern American Christians are focused on (the public display of the Ten Commandments, the singing of Christmas carols in public school programs, preserving the words “In God We Trust” on the currency, etc.) the verbiage often sounds like entitled children who are angry they are no longer getting their way. Rarely do I see compassionate, Christ-like language used in these civic debates. Instead, I hear shrill complaints and threats hurled at elected officials – threatening their defeat so God-fearing individuals can take their place.
I wonder what the world would be like if modern American Christians felt a little less entitled to power and privilege and a little more committed to the plight of the outcast and marginalized. I dream of a world, for instance, where some Christians put less energy was put into demanding the display of the Ten Commandments in government agencies and more energy into providing affordable child-care for working families. I dream of a world where some Christians put less energy into demanding that Christmas carols be sung in public school music programs and more energy into mentoring those struggling with various forms of addiction. I dream of a world where some Christians put less energy into insisting the words “In God We Trust” was stamped on our currency and more energy into supporting those who struggle with mental illness.
I think the kind of world I dream of COULD become a reality if we continue to solidify our commitment to the separation of church and state – so that the church becomes less obsessed with having the state enshrine its institutional power and privilege and more focused on living out the values of Jesus.
That’s my take on the matter. What about you? How do you view the separation of church and state?