There has been a lot of news in recent years about preachers telling their people who to vote for in an election, and stories of some preachers kicking some of their members out of the church because they did not obey. There have been other warnings about churches losing their non-for-profit status if they promote one candidate over another. So the issue is a relevant concern, especially with the rapidly approaching presidential election. So let me share some history and thoughts.
The issue has come to the forefront of public awareness and debate due to the rising influence which the conservative Christian churches have had since the 1980s. Most mainline Christians — the Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, United Church of Christ, etc. — were quite comfortable with the idea of the separation of church and state, and mainline churches have been the dominant influence in American society for most of the 19th and 20th centuries. But the last twenty plus years has experienced the promotion of conservative Christian perspectives and initiatives. Conservative Christians tend to believe that they have the truth and that everyone should believe as they do and behave as they do. So the particular issue of the separation of church and state is heavily influenced by the fact that many conservative Christians believe that the United States was founded to be, and should be a “Christian nation.”
But if you look at the documents which founded this nation and set up its organization — namely, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States — you will clearly see that there was no intent to have this country as an exclusively Christian nation.The first thing one may argue is that the Founding Fathers were all Christians. That is not really true. Most of the Founding Fathers were actually Deists. What is a Deist, you ask? A Deist is a person who believes that God created the universe much like a clock maker created a clock, and then God, the great clock maker of the universe, wound up the universe and let it go. God is not personally active or involved in the universe for a Deist. A Christian, on the other hand, believes that God does act and get involved in the affairs of people, and did so in a very personal way in the person of Jesus Christ.
So how does a Deist understand Jesus of Nazareth? He or she would think of Jesus as a really good guy who met with a very unfortunate fate. But the divinity of Jesus would not likely be a part of their belief system. The most famous of the Deists among the Founding Fathers was Thomas Jefferson, a Unitarian and the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, and one of the “framers” of the Constitution.
If you have not looked at the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution for some time, read them again for yourself. When you read the Declaration of Independence you will not find Jesus or Christ mentioned anywhere. The document is barely theistic by mentioning God as “Nature’s God”, “Creator”, and “Providence.” You would have to read into it a tremendous amount to believe it is declaring a Christian nation. So how about the Constitution of the United States? Surely there is an unmistakable statement of Christ’s centrality in the formation of our nation. But no. There is not. There is no mention of Jesus, Christ or even God. Even in the oath of office for the President, that last phrase the presidents say, “So help me God,” is not in the official oath. That phrase and using the Bible to swear on was something George Washington did, and every president since then has done the same. But it is not in the Constitution. I do not know about you, but if I wanted to make sure the United States was a Christian nation, then I would have mentioned it in the two biggest and most important documents in the founding of our country. But the Founding Fathers consciously and deliberately chose not to put it in. Now, some of the individual states in their constitutions mention God and even Christ, but more from an inspirational point of view. By the way, Michigan’s constitution is not one of them. But whatever a state may mention as its inspiration, each and every state is bound under the articles and amendments of the United States Constitution. And that is where we find our next, and most important point in this discussion — the First Amendment to the Constitution.
The very first line of the First Amendment to the Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Being the very first line of the First Amendment makes me conclude that this freedom of religion was very important to the Founding Fathers.
Now we know that people say and do things in response to their history and situations. So what led the Founding Fathers to declare first and foremost the freedom of religion? It was because they had known the abuses that can happen when church and state are two arms of the same institution.
Europe had official state religions at the time of the American Revolution and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Nations and factions within nations went to war with each other in the name of their particular brand of Christianity or other religion.
Many of you have heard of the Inquisition which existed in Medieval Europe. The Inquisition was granted authority by the Roman Catholic Church and by the governments of the countries to weed out, hunt down, torture and execute those who believed contrary to the accepted doctrine of the day. Thousands of people suffered harassment, loss of livelihood, family members, torture and death if they were accused of acting or believing contrary to Catholic dogma. Those accused were often done so by jealous or spiteful neighbors. And the state government sanctioned and assisted in these activities.
The French government assisted religious authorities in what we would call genocide today against the Cathars and Huegonauts. Men, women and children were slaughtered in the name of religious conformity and defending the faith. The French government — with the Pope’s consent — tortured and slaughtered the Knights Templar. It has been estimated that over 300,000 people were killed in Europe because they were accused of being witches. This kind of barbarism can only take place if the state governments allow it, and they did allow it, because there was no freedom of religion. The nation had an official religion and the people in that nation were all expected to conform to those practices and beliefs. And heaven help you if you did not, or were simply accused of, not doing so. Because heaven was the only help you had.
Or consider when Henry VIII of England wanted to divorce his first wife, Catherine, and marry Ann Boleyn. The Pope refused to grant Henry an annulment or divorce, so Henry nationalized religion and made himself the head of the Church of England. As a consequence, the Pope excommunicated everyone in England and Henry persecuted many and executed some who criticized his new religion.
The pain and suffering of many people would not have happened if there had been a separation of church and state. The Inquisition, the Medieval French government, Henry VIII and many more examples all convinced the Founding Fathers of the United States how easy abuse was when church and state were one. The power of religion and state together led to abuses and atrocities.
Of course, the former-mentioned institutions did not see themselves as evil or abusive, but rather, they were defending the truth and preserving the status quo. And of course, Henry just wanted to get his way at any cost. Those who were different in their religious beliefs were seen as perverts and anarchists undermining decency and social order. As a result, decent, moral, creative, potentially productive people were tortured, silenced and killed in the name of defending the faith or preserving the God-given authority of the crown.
Now if you and your group are the ones in power, you probably do not see much problem with the church and state being together. We all think that our way is the right way and those who behave, or perhaps look, or think differently than we do should not have power. If you believe that your way is the right way and other people are wrong, of course, you would want to make, and enforce, laws that promote your point of view. If God is on our side, don’t we have an obligation to make everyone behave and believe accordingly?
Many conservative Christians — and others — believe that it is not only their right, but their duty, to make the world and its people conform to their way of doing things. Many believe in a theocratic form of government. Theocratic means “God rule.” It is a state where the religious authorities — as God’s spokespeople — run the government. The governments of the ancient world were primarily theocracies. The state of Israel or Judah when Jesus lived was a theocracy with the religious leaders of the Sanhedrin directed by the chief priest as its governing body. Of course, you remember how that government worked out for that rebel and troublemaker Jesus. They crucified the Son of the God they claimed to serve.
The Pilgrims of 17th and 18th century New England were intended to be a theocracy. But even there, people were oppressed and executed in service to God, and they produced the Salem Witch trials as a testimony of what can happen when church and state are one. And a more modern and more gruesome example of a theocracy gone horribly wrong is the Taliban in Afghanistan.
We are fallible human beings — all of us. We all have the tendency to become narrow minded and short-sighted, and to forget that people who behave and believe differently from us are still human beings like us. Having absolute power tends to corrupt any person or institution. The Founding Fathers realized this and created in the new government what we call checks and balances, so no one could easily abuse or usurp power and become a tyrant. With checks and balances, there is responsibility and accountability, and responsibility and accountability keep those in power from easily abusing the power that we, the people, give them. Without responsibility and accountability people can and often do abuse their authority.
The form of order — of government — we have in Pilgrim Church is called congregationalism. It comes out of the premise that there are no infallible human beings, and rarely does any one individual or group have the knowledge of God’s will. Congregationalism believes that we all have a piece of the truth and a part of the understanding of what God wants us to do, so that the only way we can attempt to approach discerning God’s will is to gather as a congregation and to listen to one another and speak the truth as honestly and as humbly as we can with one another, putting our egos aside and sincerely seeking God. In congregationalism we are responsible to one another to listen to each other and honestly share what we believe God wants.
In similar fashion, the state, the government, has a responsibility to sincerely listen to the people to serve the will of the people, while the people in the church have a responsibility to speak their understanding of the truth honestly and humbly with the government. The state has the responsibility to make sure that people are treatedfairly and everyone has the chance to be heard – that no one group can oppress another. And the church has moral and ethical standards to call the government to responsibility. When church and state are separate they can help each other by checks and balances. When church and state are one, there is no checking or balancing and abuse can run rampant.
When the Nazi party came to power in Germany, they began influencing the churches and eventually controlling them. The church became the puppet of the government. There were those churches who did not give in to the Nazis and remained a prophetic voice of morality and justice. Those people suffered persecution and death, however. Many throughout history have paid a heavy price for the abuse of power when the church and state are one. If we do not maintain the checks and balance of separation of church and state, then we may find ourselves in the same situation as when Martin Niemeoller wrote about the Nazis: “First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the Jews, but I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, but I was not a Catholic. Then they came for me, but by that time no one was left to speak up for me.” The separation and church state makes sure that someone is able to speak up for the persecuted and oppressed, so no one will be persecuted and oppressed.