The Separation of Church & State

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?

About Pastor Craig

I'm a 54-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, CA with his black Labrador Retriever named Max. I'm an ordained clergy person in the United Church of Christ. My passions include spirituality, politics, and sports (Go Houston teams, go!). I use my blog to start conversations rather than merely spout my perspectives and opinions. I hope you'll post a question, comment, or observation for me to respond - so we can get the conversation started!
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10 Responses to The Separation of Church & State

  1. Stevie says:

    I am by no means a scholar of either religion or the government, but I think freedom of religion is different from separation of church and state. I believe that every American should be able to worship God, or Buddha, or a pile of rocks, without fear of discrimination. We should be able to pray anywhere and any time we want–on our own. I think it’s unfair that Muslims are stereotyped as terrorists and that a uniformed guard is always stationed at my daughter’s synagogue. That would be freedom of religion in my view—if everyone could be free to worship without fear.

    Separation of church and state–to me–means that no religion should have control in the government—the other thing that had happened in England. The only way–to me–is to make it black and white. No religion in the government. Even within the Christian faith, there are so many varied beliefs and we are such a melting pot. How could it work.

    Regarding prayer in public schools, I have thought about it a lot since. I have had two Jewish grandchildren. I think it would be wrong to direct public school children in the prayer of any religion. I have thought it might be OK to have a silent time or something when students would have time to center or pray or just be with their thoughts.

  2. Stevie says:

    P.S. I love your philosophy, and both you and Sharon are Christians who serve in that way.

  3. sandi daniel says:

    Right on, Craig! I’m blessed by your words!

  4. ruthwabel says:

    You hit the nail on the head with this one! I wouldn’t object to prayers in public if they were really ecumenical or silent, so everyone could pray their own way, or not at all. Usually they are only Christian which leaves everyone else out. That’s not good.

  5. Beverly Marshall Saling says:

    Thank you, Craig. I love your idea that we all (Christian or no) can do better for our beliefs by taking care of “the least of these” than by “praying on the street corners.” If you want to win hearts and minds for your beliefs, people are more receptive when you show them kindness than when you try to show them up or boss them around!

    It’s always been legal to pray in school—no one can stop you from talking to God in your own head—but it’s not legal to forcibly involve other people by making them listen to you do it or taking valuable instructional time away from them so you have more time to pray. That seems like a good guiding principle for freedom of religion: you can practice your religion in whatever way you see fit until you involve other people in a way that encroaches on their right to NOT practice your religion (or any religion at all, for that matter).

  6. Sharon McMahon says:

    Thanks Craig. Your answer certainly touched my heart. I always thought we had to protect the church from the state, but put the way you did, I can see it is the other way around. The “church” has indeed become more powerful than it should be, politically. So much today has become political, that should have stayed in the church! The Lord Jesus certainly put most of his energies into the poor and downtrodden. As you say, what a great place to do so. 🙂 As a personal story, I want to share. One day, a man came into the little chapel where I attended. He looked sad and down, in need of help. He had on a baseball cap. One of the men came up to him and told him he had to take off his hat. That man got up and left. To this day, it upsets me and I pray for the “man in the cap” from time to time, wondering where he is and if he ever found the peace he was looking for. Sometimes we get so caught up in the letter of the law, we forget about God’s Amazing Grace.

  7. Beverly Marshall Saling says:

    I’ve heard a lot of people saying that silent prayer time should be okay at secular public events, since everyone could pray their own way. But is that really true?

    What if your religion requires you to pray in a certain way—facing a certain direction, or being outdoors, or wearing a certain garment? Are you going to feel comfortable calling attention to your Otherness by following your beliefs in a roomful of people doing it differently? And if you do, what are the odds that someone in the majority group will complain that you were being disruptive?

    What if you are an atheist and do not practice prayer or meditation at all? Are you supposed to just sit there awkwardly and stare at your toes? If you choose another silent activity (such as reading or checking your email), will others complain that you were disrespectful?

    To people outside the majority group, silent prayer time often comes across as “Now we normal people are going to pray, and you weirdos had better pretend you’re just like us or you’ll ruin our moment.”

  8. Stevie says:

    I am going out on a limb here, because I know I shouldn’t have to ask this. But I don’t understand the Gaza Strip controversy. I’m not even sure if the question is one of religion or politics or what. Please help, Craig……

  9. ybabb001 says:

    Here is a question for you–

    As we see the mentally handicapped, day in and day out committ crimes that usually the same would not– how do you best advise us as a society, to forgive–. We have our laws– but how do we not have hatred and bad wishes towards the ones that have created so much hurt on their own. And does God forgive these crimes? I mean assuradely God knows everybody’s demons– and knows their limits to fighting those demons.

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