Church – State Separation: Two Differing Ideas

I read the following article in the   Piedmont Christian News. I tried to respond, but I’m not sure they are set up to receive commentary on their articles. Nevertheless, I think it is good to listen to one another’s views and engage in Christian dialogue. So here is the (unsigned) article and my response:

As the United States celebrates Independence Day, I think it is worth a second look at the declaration which marked the beginning of this nation nearly 240 years ago. I find it fascinating how many people want to argue, one way or the other about who the founding fathers were and whether to cast them as heroes: champions of secular freedom, defenders of Christian faith, revolutionaries for the people, or as villains: greedy landowners, tax evaders, slave holders, misogynists. I am less interested in the people who founded this nation than the theory of government they describe in the Declaration of Independence. Even more, I am amazed to see how the meaning of the words that set this nation into being are ignored or misunderstood, even as those same words are celebrated every Fourth of July.

The Declaration of Independence
In the Declaration of Independence, a revolutionary concept of government is proposed. That is, that government exists by the consent of the people in recognition of “certain unalienable Rights,” which include but are not limited to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” and exists for the purpose of securing those rights for the people consenting to it.
You may not notice it right away, but those words imply a remarkable concept completely contrary to the notion of separation of church and state as it is understood today. The founding fathers based the legality of the revolution and the formation of a new government on the presupposition that there was truth out there, real truth, which includes the truth that humans all have rights. They believed government did not establish those rights, but rather was formed to recognize and protect them.

Human Rights
But notice that if “human rights” are real, they come from somewhere deeper than simple nature. That is, they are supernatural ideas. Whether it is biology, psychology or sociology, science won’t find them. Today, we act as if supernatural truth, such as the existence and nature of “rights,” is more like an agreement of the majority to pretend certain things are true. Truth is not a reality to be recognized, and if everyone changes their mind, we can just pretend something else instead.
That won’t work. A government that recognizes and protects human rights protects the minority against the majority regardless of public opinion, when the majority is impinging upon the minority’s rights. U.S. law protects the atheist’s right to disbelieve God because U.S. law is based on the belief that the atheist is wrong! The U.S. democracy is built on the notion that truth is not democratic, that some truths are self-evident, and that an educated populace will seek to protect those truths, not redefine them.

Dependence on Truth
I don’t know how many of the founding fathers were truly followers of Christ. I don’t know how much they meant to connect their law to God’s truth or to defend the God-ordained special dignity of humanity. But when they declared independence from British rule, they set into motion a nation whose whole existence depended upon the existence of deeper truths rooted in God’s creation of this world. The “right” U.S. government arises from people who believe in truth, seek truth, and defend truth, not people who get to redefine it however they want, and who must fearfully keep God out of the public sector.
I am pessimistic that the church will succeed in ending the hypocrisy in our current government and law. But I am glad there is a little bit of God’s truth in U.S. law because I think God’s truth is good even when people fail to recognize it.

Here is my response:

The idea of church state separation is found in the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution (Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…) The author of the Declaration of Independence, who wrote those words about the “unalienable truths” of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness also wrote to Baptists in order to reassure them that the government is separate from the church. Thomas Jefferson’s reply to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptist Association contains a phrase “a wall of separation between church and state.”

The author of this post is confusing in his or her reasoning. The truth of history is that Baptists, along with other Christians who were victims of persecution from churches supported by the state actually advocated for the common sense solution of church-state separation.

About this issue historian Jon Meacham has said: “The hunger on the part of many later generations of evangelical believers to see the nation’s founding as a Christian event from which we have fallen is understandable… The preponderance of historical evidence, however, suggests that the nation was not ‘Christian’ but rather a place of people whose experience with religious violence and the burdens of established churches led them to view religious liberty as one of humankind’s natural rights – a right as natural as those of thought and expression.” (American Gospel, p. 84.)

So let’s get our story straight. As a Baptist minister and an American my hope is that all my brothers and sisters will reconsider the meaning and purpose behind church – state separation. The good news of Jesus does not rely on any government (Roman or American) to reach people with the truth.


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