Understanding the Wall, Part 2: What Christians need to know about the Integration of Religion and Public Life

June 24, 2008 | 3 comments | Posted in Uncategorized | Tags:

“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion.” – John Adams

The Founding Fathers were well aware of John Locke’s extensive argument for an institutional separation between Church and State in his Letter Concerning Toleration. Yet Locke, like the Founders, contended that this did not imply a mutual exclusion between Religion and Government. “Magistracy,” he wrote, “does not oblige the magistrate to put off either Humanity or Christianity.” The main point of separating Church and State is so that one institution does not usurp the role of the other. While the terms sound similar, an integration of Religion and Government means that the government should not fear when religion enters the public discourse or influences policy, nor should religious Americans shun the political process or feel cut off from the public arena.

But how does this play out practically?

The Founders differentiated between these two “separations” in the laws and policies they enacted. Thomas Jefferson, for example, passionately opposed giving tax money to certain religious denominations because it would be “respecting an establishment of religion.” However, he supported allowing religious services to be held in government buildings and gave tax exempt status to churches in the District of Columbia. The difference was that these measures promoted religion in general, which is foundational to a stable civil society, without endorsing one particular religious establishment.

Christians should always oppose any policy or idea which restricts their ability to advance religious values in the public arena. The present trend to remove any trace of “religion” from political debate, public schools, and court opinions is not merely a healthy Church and State separation, but a malignant attempt to abolish Religion from Public Life. When Religion is instead welcomed into the political sphere, and all belief systems are advanced, we give the Truth the opportunity to free a culture captivated by empty philosophy.

It is the separation of Church and State, and the religious liberty that results, that fosters an environment for Christians to promote Truth in the public sphere. Christians must therefore not shy away from political involvement. Our political opinions should be based on Scriptural Truth because only God has a correct perspective on what is truly best for human society. We must actively advance those principles in conversation, voting, and influencing public officials. Let us not hide the lamp of Truth under a bowl, but rather put it on its stand, so that it gives light to everyone in the house.

3 Comments

Dan

I think that Christians and non-Christians would do well to read this post.

In terms of practicality, I do have some questions as to how this plays out. Is popular Christianity overreacting against ardent secularism on issues such as the Pledge of Allegiance or “In God we trust” on our currency? Does “one nation under God” improperly define the nation as “Christian” and fail to reflect the religious plurality that is a growing reality in the United States?

Does the term “Christian nation” rightly apply to a nation that is predominantly Christian (demographically), or does it refer to one that actively seeks to promote Christianity? The integration of church and state, in terms of a man-administered theocracy, seems to be poor theology that sees the State (especially the US State) as a sort of “new Israel”, a nation chosen by God to promote His work in the world. In contrast, the view of integration you discuss seems to put government back in its proper place: protecting the relationships within society while allowing the Church (rather than the State) to function in its proper role as the body of Christ.

Would we do well, as Christians, to seek to advance (or protect) the rights of other religious groups as well; be it through the availability of Islamic chaplains in the military, etc.? (I do not know the practice with that currently; that is only an example, but seeking the rights of others seems appropriate and a way to secure our own as well) It seems that this may be the only way to put church-state relations back on their proper ground and secure the freedom to live out religion in the public square.

As a nation we must avoid the twin dangers of seeking a new theocracy, on the one hand, and seeking government sponsored atheism on the other hand (as exists in various autocratic regimes today). I appreciate your post for recognizing this.

I echo your call for Christians to base their political (etc.) views on Scriptural Truth. In this case we would surely be advised to know scripture well, especially where it does relate to civic society! It is shameful that popular analysis of the “separation wars” does not pick up on the subtleties of the matter.

Is “one nation under God” intended to imply anything more than the sovereignty God exerts over all nations on this earth, America included (but not exclusively)? If it does imply more, is it perhaps inappropriate?

These are certainly questions to ponder.

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *