Understanding the Wall, Part 1: What Christians need to know about the Separation of Church & State

Jun 19, 2008 | 5 comments

“Reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” – George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796

I don’t usually find myself in agreement with the Americans United for a Separation of Church and State, considering that we tend to disagree about everything from how we interpret the Constitution to whether tomatoes are fruits or vegetables. So I was surprised when I read an angry article by Jeremy Leaming blasting the Religious Right and found a glimmer of truth. Leaming wrote, “[Washington] thought religion was important as a source of public and private virtue, but that doesn’t mean he wanted the government to force it on anyone.” How can I say that I agree with Jeremy Leaming and not lose my job with PFI? The answer lies in the fact that there is a profound distinction between a separation of Church and State and a separation of Religion and Government.

Most Americans, Christians and secularists alike, use these phrases interchangeably. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, alluding to Thomas Jefferson’s infamous “wall of separation between Church and State,” spoke of “the wall that was designed to separate religion and government” (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris). But are these concepts the same? I would argue that the Founders did in fact desire to create a wall of separation between the institution of the Church and the institution of the State. The prevention of Church control of the state as well as state involvement in the Church is essential for preserving individuals’ religious liberty and Church autonomy. Scripture itself gives very specific and different roles to the Church (Ephesians 4) and to the State (Romans 13), and neither is equipped to fulfill the others roles. The State should not assume the responsibility of winning souls, as in the state-controlled Church of England from which the Pilgrims fled, nor can the Church claim the power of “the sword,” as occurred during the Spanish Inquisition.

However, the Founders never wanted or anticipated this institutional independence to turn into a mutual exclusion. Unlike the separation of Church and State, the separation of Religion and Government not only restricts the free exercise of religion, it establishes the secular worldview in the public arena.

It is essential to understand the difference between these two “separations.” What we truly desire is the ability to bring our principles and values to the public sector, to be salt and light in ALL aspects of our society, public as well as private. So while we never want the institutions of Church and State to be integrated, we must continue to struggle against a separation of Religion and Government. Understanding this distinction will enable us to dispel the secular world’s false perceptions of Christians and allow us to build common ground so that our labor in this debate will bear more fruit.