One of the most frustrating things I encounter as a minister is the realization that many if not most Christian people do not appreciate the idea of a separation of church and government. In fact, not only do they not appreciate the idea, many vehemently oppose the notion. Which is terribly troubling because separation is a good thing–for the church and the government.
Part of the problem in embracing this important concept is the misunderstandings that surround it. A separation of church and government does not mean a separation of faith from life. No one is asked to stop being whatever sort of believer they happen to be. No one from the government is going to come and take the Bible out of your house.
It also does not mean that children cannot pray in school. Children have the same First Amendment rights as everyone else. They can pray before lunch or before a test. They can tell classmates, who are willing to listen, about their faith. In short, the school day can be as spiritual as children want it to be.
What cannot happen, and should not happen, is religion used to disrupt the class process. Children cannot and should not be allowed to use their faith as a way of not participating in class activities. And no one, in school or out of school, should have to listen to a religious message they don’t want to hear.
A separation of church and government also does not mean that our nation is doomed to godlessness. If we are godless it is not because of government inactivity in spiritual matters, it is because people do not engage in spiritual practices. Most churches report that only a small percentage of the total membership participates in weekly worship.
Why should we ask the government to do for us what we are not willing to do for ourselves?
In his new book, Head and Heart: American Christianities, Garry Wills does a good job of explaining the positive benefits of a proper separation of church and government. He describes the days following the ratification of the Constitution with the resulting disestablishment of established churches. Church leaders back then were convinced that the absence of God in the U.S. Constitution would result in the death of organized religion.
To their surprise, organized religion did not die. In fact, because of the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution, faith flourished and thrived in America. We remain to this day far more engaged in religious activity than almost any other developed country in the world. We can credit this spiritual vitality to a proper separation of church from government.
Wills narrates the story of Mary Dyer who in June of 1660 was hanged to death in Massachusetts. Her crime? Mary was a Quaker.
In 17th-century Massachusetts only one religion was allowed–the official version of Christianity as established by the state. All other faiths were deemed by law as heresies. This included Baptists, Presbyterians as well as Quakers. Unrepentant heretics could face the gallows for their beliefs.
The framers of the Constitution were determined that such religious intolerance would end. They disestablished religion, all religion, from having any official government sanction. They set faith free to make its own way, and promised to provide protection for everyone to pursue faith in the way they understand faith.
That is still the law today, if we can hold on to it.
James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.