(The following is a chapter from a book in progress.)
To Christian mythmakers and mythtakers, the “separation of church and state” is an evil idea that dangerously threatens the Christian church. Their argument runs thusly:
Thomas Jefferson made an unfortunate slip-of-the-tongue when he used the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state,” and now that idea has been seized by liberal judges and politicians, as well as leftist lobbies such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), to persecute the American church. Jefferson misspoke. The Founding Fathers never intended to erect such a wall. The Founders were predominantly Christians, and most of those who were not Christians were theists, all of whom understood that the principles of our republic derive from the Bible. America was founded as a Christian nation by Christians; America has lost that vision; and now we must “reclaim America for Christ.”
However, such objections are both unfounded and misleading, embellishing the myth of America while deceiving millions of Christians who unwittingly embrace the myth. But the very opposite is true– the “wall of separation between church and state” is not a dangerous idea spawned by the evil Deist Jefferson, but rather a Christian idea.
The life of Roger Williams provides a living metaphor of America’s evolution from oppressive theocracies to a nation of religious liberty and tolerance. Although Williams is often errantly named among the earliest American Baptists, he nonetheless represents their and others’ conscientious objection to an American theocracy. Over 100 years before the First Amendment or Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists, Roger Williams argued that, for religious liberty to flourish, a” wall” must exist between church and state.
When they (the Church) have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the Candlestick, etc., and made His Garden a wilderness as it is this day.
Note that Williams’ warning about the “wall of separation” between the church and the state does not assign the responsibility for the wall to the state but rather to the church. That distinction represents a diametric contradiction to contemporary theocrats who raise alarms about the government erecting a “wall of separation” between itself and the church; to the contrary, in Williams’ view, not the state but the church must build the “wall of separation,” and he warns the church that to open “a gap” in this wall will bring about God’s judgment upon the church—He will “break down the wall,” “remove the candlestick” from the church, and “make His garden a wilderness as it is this day.” Williams concluding phrase “as it is this day” reminds us that he wrote these words as a direct result of religious persecution against him by the state-sanctioned, state-empowered church of Massachusetts.
Whether or not Jefferson borrowed the phrase “wall of separation” from Williams, we cannot be sure. The textual evidence and historical moment imply that he did. But even if Jefferson did not consciously borrow the phrase from Williams, Williams’ usage of the “wall of separation” occurred 158 years before Jefferson’s letter and thus destroys the arguments of those who contend that Jefferson’s reference to a “wall of separation” between church and state is an unfortunate slip-of-the-tongue that has now become a dangerous weapon in the hands of evil liberals who want to build such a wall. To the contrary, the “wall of separation” is Williams’ idea, and he and other anti-theocrats argued that the church must protect this wall, not “open a gap” in the wall much less tear it down. With even more passionate affirmation of the separation of church and state, Williams wrote one of the most influential documents in American history, “The Bloody Tenet of Persecution” (1644) which forcefully argues against any intrusion of civil government into matters of religion:
All civil states with their officers of justice in their respective constitutions and administrations are proved essentially civil, and therefore not judges, governors, or defenders of the spiritual or Christian state and worship. . . . God requireth not a uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state; which enforced uniformity (sooner or later) is the greatest occasion of civil war, ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus in his servants, and of the hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls. . . . An enforced uniformity of religion throughout a nation or civil state, confounds the civil and religious, denies the principles of Christianity and civility, and that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.
Nonetheless, in Williams’ day the Anglicans, Dutch Reformed, and Puritans who settled respectively in Virginia, New York, and Massachusetts Bay, sought to establish conformist religious governments known as “Bible commonwealths” that envisioned church and state as one. None of them advocated much less embraced the principles of pluralism and toleration that would eventually win the day in the church-state debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Instead, they sought to subject their citizens to a common religious yoke, and tax them while they bore it! Their theocratic ideas derived from prior ecclesiastical governments in England and Holland, or from “postmillennialism,” the prophetic doctrine that God will eventually Christianize the world before the second coming of Christ. Thus, for the seventeenth-century theocrats, the synthesis of church and state was an essential mechanism to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth. Unlike deists and Christians such as Jefferson and Williams, who wanted the civil government to be “hands off” religion, early American theocrats attempted to establish a “shining city on a hill” in which the law of God was one with the law of man. Anyone who knows even a smattering of American history should recognize two key facts:
- first, these early theocracies persecuted both Christian and non-Christian dissenters who fled these oppressive regimes and established or settled in states that treasured religious liberty and freedom of conscience—Baptists to Rhode Island, Quakers to Pennsylvania, Catholics to “Mary-land”, etc.;
- secondly, the advocates of theocracy ultimately lost the political battle over the intrusion of specific religious ideas into the United States Constitution.
Unlike the Declaration of Independence that includes deistic, not Christian, references to God, the Constitution expunges all references to deity or religion except, of course, in the famous establishment clause—“Congress shall make no laws respecting the establishment of religion or the free exercise thereof.” To the dismay of contemporary theocrats, the establishment clause of the First Amendment asserts pluralism, not sectarianism; religious tolerance, not Christian theocracy.
The first words of the First Amendment, the first right protected by the First Amendment, and the first order of business with those who wrote the First Amendment are first for a reason—religious liberty was the first and foremost concern of our Founding Fathers—“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” We should note that the First Amendment’s language is much broader than the Christian idea of the ”church,” evidenced by the amendment’s use of “religion” as opposed to “church,” and thus the amendment protects the mosque, the temple, and the synagogue as well as the “church.” How thankful we should be for the Founders’ wisdom and courage to recognize the primacy and inalienability of “soul freedom” by limiting the powers of government in matters of religion. Yet theocrats of their day opposed such separation of church and state, and theocrats of our day echo that protestation. Even though the First Amendment does not specifically refer to the judicial and executive branches of the federal government, courts have upheld that the amendment nevertheless applies to all three branches since neither the judicial nor the executive branch has legislative authority; that authority rests exclusively with the Congress: “All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.” Originally, the First Amendment limited only the federal government from making laws pertinent to religions; the individual states were not so restrained, and numerous state constitutions favored certain religious groups. But with the advent of the 14th Amendment in 1858 and subsequent rulings of the Supreme Court in the 20th century, the “due-process clause” of the 14th Amendment has been interpreted to impose First Amendment restrictions upon the states. Thus, state laws in violation of the First Amendment have gradually been stricken down by the courts or repealed by state legislatures. But in Williams’ and Jefferson’s America, the tension between federal and state constitutions was a major concern for anti-federalist Christians. The preeminent example of this tension occurred during Jefferson’s Presidency when he received a letter from the Danbury Baptist Association. Those Baptists wrote the President to express their concern that the state of Connecticut did not view religious liberty as a right but rather as a privilege granted by the state. Although Jefferson did not address the specific issue of Connecticut’s authority in religious matters, he nonetheless wrote an eloquent defense of the separation of church and state, including what may have been his “original” usage of the phrase “wall of separation.”
To messers Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.
The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. My duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, and in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing. Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties. I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.
(signed) Thomas Jefferson, Jan 1, 1802
Revisionist historians and flag-waving televangelists castigate Jefferson for using the phrase “wall of separation,” yet they conveniently minimize or even ignore the fact that Jefferson’s language echoes the sentiment of anti-theocrats such as Roger Williams. While Jefferson’s detractors would passionately deny the charge that they are trying to theocratize America, such a denial is disingenuous, especially when it comes from those on the far religious right who so passionately exercise themselves about politics. Proof of this contemporary effort to theocratize America derives from three basic ideas set forth by its proponents:
- America was founded by Christians to be a Christian nation;
- Contemporary America has lost that original vision; and,
- Christians must “reclaim America for Christ.”
In the first place, if the Founding Fathers intended to establish a Christian nation, not only were they mistaken and misguided, their experiment has failed miserably. Except for the salt and light of the authentic church, America is an almost thoroughly paganized anti-culture, ravaged by drugs, crime, violence, promiscuity, relativism, spiritual lethargy, greed, idolatry, radical individualism, socialism, and increasing ignorance. This rapid and rampant deterioration of America is in fact one of the major causes for the fretful hand-wringing that characterizes the troubled psychology of the new theocrats who exercise themselves so passionately over politics, as if laws and elections could redeem America!
Secondly, the sovereign purpose of God does not include the establishment of a “Christian nation” in any civil sense. In fact, God had already established His “Christian nation” nearly 1800 years before America was founded. In His Parable of the Vineyard, Jesus told the Jewish nation, the original biblical theocracy, that “the kingdom of God is taken from you and given to a nation bringing forth the fruit thereof.” That “nation” to which Jesus referred was, in Paul’s and Peter’s words, “the Israel of God,” “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, and an holy nation” comprised of believers out of every kindred and tribe. That “nation” is indeed invisible, not visible; global, not local or national; spiritual, not physical; internal, not external; eternal, not temporal. Jesus plainly stated, “My kingdom is not of this world,” and “if anyone shall say to you, lo, here is the kingdom, or there is the kingdom, do not believe it; for the kingdom of God is within you.” The kingdom of God, the “nation” of God, is not the United States of America. That is a myth, and the First Amendment was written to protect United States citizens from the dangers of that myth. However, contemporary Christian theocrats continue to argue that America is a “Christian nation” and that Christians must do all they can to recover what we have purportedly lost. “We must reclaim America for Christ,” they cry.
Such ideas appeal to millions of American Christians who see our nation spiraling downward in moral and intellectual apostasy. This idea compromises the Gospel of Jesus Christ, making its aims political and nationalistic, confusing its spiritual methods and message with political strategies and dynastic dreams of a Christian America, practically elevating such political ideas on a par with the Gospel itself! Moreover, such politicization of Christianity denigrates the Gospel as the singular solution to humanity’s problems, and creates a monstrous synthesis between secular and sacred, political and spiritual ideas. It appeals to Christians at an emotional level, and creates a sophomoric explanation of our nations’s problems by falsifying American history and proffering a political solution to America’s contemporary ills. How well do the words of the early American and Baptist pastor John Leland describe the fallacy of such theocratic myths:
Heaven forbids the bans of marriage between church and state; their embraces therefore, must be unlawful. Guard against those men who make a great noise about religion, in choosing representatives. It is electioneering. If they knew the nature and worth of religion, they would not debauch it to such shameful purposes. If pure religion is the criterion to denominate candidates, those who make a noise about it must be rejected; for their wrangle about it, proves that they are void of it.
The historic doctrine of the separation of Church and State, championed originally by early American Christians, does not mean that Christians should not be involved in politics, but it does mean that Christians should not be involved in politics while embracing false notions of American theocracy.