The struggle to maintain a proper wall of separation between church and state has reached a precarious crossroads. Today we must ask whether to use “if” or “when.” It makes a difference.
Saying “if the wall comes down” means we still have a chance to recognize the genius of the American Constitution. Religion thrives in our country precisely because it has been forced by separation from the state to find its own ground to grow in. If the wall comes down, the ground will change and we will be dealing with a much different and less desirable field.
If the wall comes down we will witness a deepening confusion of the proper role of faith in our culture. This has already happened to a significant degree as elements of the Christian faith have been highly politicized. In fact, faith is already so identified with certain political ideals that the very face of orthodoxy has changed.
Today, for instance, a Christian believer may have a heartfelt belief in Jesus and the Scriptures, but be considered unfaithful because of a position on some peripheral issue. Imagine a pastor during an altar call leaning over a young penitent and asking: “As a follower of Jesus do you promise to support free trade and the elimination of the inheritance tax?”
There is more. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling allowing vouchers represents a sizable crack in the wall. However proponents care to spin it, legalizing vouchers has legalized public subsidies for religious education.
Also, President Bush’s ongoing effort to get his faith-based initiatives program moving represents an assault on the wall of separation. The idea here is to create partnerships between government and religious institutions to address social problems.
One of the most brazen assaults on the wall of separation, one that Congress will likely hear again this year, is the so-called “Religious Free Speech Act.” This bill, if enacted, would allow churches to raise money for and endorse political candidates.
So the question is “if” or “when.” Either way, communities of faith need to realize how the playing field is changing. If or when the wall comes down, we will no longer be in a position to defend the separation of church and state solely on the basis of law. The time may come when, in order to preserve the true purpose of our calling as people of faith, we will need to make our case for separation on the basis of theology and the Bible.
For instance, instead of arguing that a public display of the Ten Commandments violates the law, a better point for us to make is that it is an inappropriate use of Scripture. People of faith don’t use the Bible as room decoration.
Instead of arguing that public prayer is a violation of the law, we should be arguing that public prayer violates the model of prayer taught by Jesus in the New Testament.
And instead of complaining that faith-based initiatives will cause religion to be interjected into government social programs, we should be screaming about the introduction of government into church programs.
If or when, the wall comes down, our legal prop for arguing for separation comes down with it. At that point all we will have left to defend ourselves against the encroachments of the state will be our commitment to our faith traditions and the Scriptures.
Of course, that is what we should have been leaning on in the first place.
James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.