Separation of Church and State?

What do you think of the idea of separation of church and state?

It all depends on what you mean by it. If you mean, “Do I believe in institutional separation, i.e., that the government of the church should be kept separate from the government of the state”, then yes I’m all for it. The church should not be a department of the state nor the state a ministry of the church. Each has its own officers and its own sphere of responsibility.

But if you mean, “Do I believe in the separation of God from government,” which is what so many people mean who cry “Separation of church and state!” then no, I don’t believe it for moment. The state, no less than the church, has a responsibility to acknowledge God and to be subject to him.

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
            be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
            and rejoice with trembling
Kiss the Son,
            lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
            for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him (Ps. 2:10-12)

Those who hold office in civil government have a responsibility not only to live faithfully as Christians in their private lives, but also to govern faithfully as Christians in their public office, openly acknowledging the Lord’s authority and governing in terms of his word. Much of the Bible, in fact, is given as instruction to those who hold public office—the case laws of the Old Testament, for instance. God tells Moses, “These are the judgments [i.e., rulings] that you are to set before” the elders and judges of the people (Ex. 21:1; cf. Deut. 1:17). Civil magistrates are not to rule on their own authority, but are to look to God’s law as a guide in terms of the proper scope of government, as well as in terms of specific pieces of legislation, and in terms of how to rule in criminal cases.

Not only this, but much of the material in the prophets is both a denunciation of rulers for failing to uphold God’s law, and a call for them to repent.

Church and state each have their own particular spheres of responsibility. The state has two chief responsibilities. First, it is to defend its citizens against foreign invasion. Second, it is to maintain domestic order by enforcing laws against what God defines as criminal behavior.[1] The church, on the other hand, is to teach the word of God and to be a center for his public worship. So church and state each have their own responsibilities, but both are under the authority of God and his word.

Leaders in civil government ought to be members of the church who listen to the teaching of God’s word and faithfully apply it to their calling as public officials. This was, in fact, a requirement in the early days of our nation. The colonies, and later, after the War for Independence, the states had religious tests for public office-holders. As a part of the swearing in ceremony officials had to swear that they believed in the Christian religion and in the divinity of Christ, and that they accepted the Bible as God’s own revealed word.[2]

It is unfortunate that our nation’s founding documents are not more explicit in this respect. Our Founders shied away from requiring a religious test for federal office-holders,[3] not because they were hoping to establish a secular society, but because they deemed this something to be taken care of at the state level. The states had their own religious tests. If the federal government imposed a religious test, it would impinge upon the right of the states to do so.[4]

The Founders seem to have taken it for granted that ours was a Christian nation and the states would send Christian men to serve in the Federal government and so they didn’t see the need to express themselves more fully on this point in our founding documents. In the Declaration we have mention made of the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” And it is said “all Men are created equal,” and that they are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” In the Constitution we have an acknowledgement of the Lord’s Day, and the date of its passage is said to be “the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven.” So there is clearly a Christian presupposition in these documents. But we could wish the Founders had been prescient enough to have seen the need to give a fuller account of these things so that there would not be so much confusion today concerning their original intentions.

[1] Note that I said criminal behavior, not sinful behavior. All criminal behavior is sinful, but not all sinful behavior is criminal.
[2] See, for instance, Gary DeMar, America’s Christian History:  The Untold Story (Powder Springs, GA:  2005)
[3] “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” (Article VI).
[4] This is also the rationale behind the establishment clause of the First Amendment:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” The Amendment restricts the power of Congress in these matters lest the acts of Congress contradict the laws of the states. 


Doug Indeap said…
1. Separation of church and state is a bedrock principle of our Constitution, much like the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. In the first place, the Supreme Court has thoughtfully, authoritatively, and repeatedly decided as much; it is long since established law. In the second place, the Court is right. In the Constitution, the founders did not simply say in so many words that there should be separation of powers and checks and balances; rather, they actually separated the powers of government among three branches and established checks and balances. Similarly, they did not merely say there should be separation of church and state; rather, they actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of "We the people" (not a deity), (2) according that government limited, enumerated powers, (3) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (4) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (5), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office. Given the norms of the day (by which governments generally were grounded in some appeal to god(s)), the founders' avoidance of any expression in the Constitution suggesting that the government is somehow based on any religious belief was quite a remarkable and plainly intentional choice. They later buttressed this separation of government and religion with the First Amendment, which affirmatively constrains the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions. The basic principle, thus, rests on much more than just the First Amendment.

To the extent that some would like confirmation--in those very words--of the founders' intent to separate government and religion, Madison and Jefferson supplied it. Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). Indeed, he understood the original Constitution--without the First Amendment--to separate religion and government. He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., “the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress” and “for the army and navy” and “[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”), he considered the question whether these actions were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom” and responded: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”

While the First Amendment limited only the federal government, the Constitution was later amended to protect from infringement by states and their political subdivisions the privileges and immunities of citizenship, due process, and equal protection of the laws. The courts naturally have looked to the Bill of Rights for the important rights thus protected by the 14th Amendment and have ruled that it effectively extends the First Amendment’s guarantees vis a vis the federal government to the states and their subdivisions--hence the law does reach the city councils and public school teachers. While the founders drafted the First Amendment to constrain the federal government, they certainly understood that later amendments could extend the Bill of Rights' constraints to state and local governments.
Doug Indeap said…
2. While some also draw meaning from the variously phrased references to god(s) in the Declaration of Independence (references that could mean any number of things, some at odds with the Christian idea of God) and try to connect that meaning to the Constitution, the effort is largely baseless. Important as the Declaration is in our history, it did not operate to bring about independence (that required winning a war), nor did it found a government, nor did it even create any law, and it certainly did not say or do anything that somehow dictated the meaning of a Constitution adopted twelve years later. The colonists issued the Declaration not to do any of that, but rather to politically explain and justify the move to independence that was already well underway. Nothing in the Constitution depends on anything said in the Declaration. Nor does anything said in the Declaration purport to limit or define the government later formed by the free people of the former colonies. Nor could it even if it purported to do so. Once independent, the people of the former colonies were free to choose whether to form a collective government at all and, if so, whatever form of government they deemed appropriate. They were not somehow limited by anything said in the Declaration. Sure, they could take its words as inspiration and guidance if, and to the extent, they chose--or they could not. They could have formed a theocracy if they wished--or, as they ultimately chose, a government founded on the power of the people (not a deity) and separated from religion.

You allude to the "Sundays excepted" clause in the Constitution and infuse it with meaning it simply does not have. It does not shut down the government on that day or encourage a day of inactivity or even preclude a President from vetoing bills on Sundays. It merely excepts Sundays from the count of ten days a President has to veto bills and, thus, assures a President the better part of two work weeks for that purpose. The clause serves, if anything, to protect the President from losing time in effect as a result of the operation of state laws, prevalent at the time of the founding, restricting activities on Sundays, including travel.

You also make much of the Constitution's date, which, in keeping with the convention of the time, is keyed to the Christian calendar, without actually offering any reason this trivial observation should be regarded as substantive or significant. It is, in any event, moot since the dating language is not part of the text of the Constitution voted upon and adopted by the Convention or ratified by the states. It was apparently just appended by the scrivener who prepared copies of the document.
Casey Harbaugh said…
Reply to Doug indeap, First of all it's interesting that, just like our current (alien holding the office of P.O.T.U.S.) you have no intestinal fortitude to use your God given name. Which screams loudly to the fact you are not sure of your twist of Our constitution (not your's obviously or you would not so distort it.) This is another shining example of those who only use the parts they like with some accuracy and distort the rest, in other words, make it fit their own agenda. Sounds alot like that creature that tempted my LORD Jesus in the wilderness. Should you decide to listen to the facts of the constitution, and the declaration of independence, or the Holy Word of the Living God, you may have hope of redemption. But first my friend, yes I said friend, God wants us to love all, and to love is to correct. My hope is first you discover who you truly are and realize the need of redemption which only Jesus Christ can provide. In His love, Signed Casey Harbaugh
Doug Enick said…
Doug Indeap, Joseph Story has a better understanding of the issues. Please see:

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