I am a Christian, I am a conservative, and I believe in the idea of separation of church and state. This may seem very odd coming from someone who attends church every Sunday and votes Republican every November, but I’ll explain.
First of all, my belief in separation of church and state does not mean that I want religion dismissed from the public domain. On the contrary, I believe that the First Amendment reduces such a notion to a far-left pipe dream, and for good reason.
However, what I am saying is that separation of church and state and the free exercise of religion are not two mutually exclusive ideas. Yes, Virginia, there is a way to have both!
First, for my liberal friends, nowhere in the constitution is there any reference whatsoever to the separation of church and state. I’m sure that most folks reading this are well aware that the idea of a “wall of separation between church and state” comes from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. Jefferson states:
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 & State.
That’s a very eloquent way for Mr. Jefferson to basically say that the state shouldn’t meddle in the private affairs of people as it relates to their choice to worship or not to worship. He by no means is saying that the church should be excluded from public affairs. Though Jefferson’s words are important, it is the Constitution–not a cherry-picked excerpt from a letter, no matter who wrote it–that acts as the supreme law of the land.
Second, as for the Establishment Clause argument so often broken out by liberals and atheists when they want the Ten Commandments, a manger, a menorah, or a completely irreligious symbol like a Christmas tree removed from a piece of property, I’d like to point out that there’s a huge difference between displaying religious symbols and the government co-opting a particular religious denomination to further an agenda…You know, like establishing an official religion of the entire state or country and forcing everyone to attend the religious services thereof.
Quite simply, liberals are completely in favor of keeping church and state separated until it doesn’t fit their agenda anymore. You see, that’s when they need you to disregard the proverbial “wall of separation,” so that the all-wise government can tell those religious folks what’s best for them and for you when it comes to circumstances like Indiana passing their RFRA law.
However, I as a conservative contend that church and state have become too close over the years, and this closeness has done considerable damage to the church as it took its eyes off its primary mission.
Reverend Samuel Stillman gave a sermon in 1779 to the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, in which he said, “The magistrate is to govern the state, and Christ is to govern the church.” He continued, saying that “The former will find business enough in the complex affairs of government to employ all his time and abilities. The latter is infinitely sufficient to manage His own kingdom without foreign aid.” (I took these quotes from Jon Meacham’s book American Gospel, which features a section on Stillman’s sermon. However, the entirety of the sermon can be found here.)
Stillman’s words are just as relevant today. I have read the Bible from cover to cover, and have yet to find Jesus of Nazareth commanding the disciples to “Go out into all the world and make Republicans of all nations, because God needs the help of the very human beings he created.” Indeed, I am quite confident in God’s ability to take care of himself without my help.
What I do find, however, is a command for pastors to lead their flocks and for those who follow the teachings of Jesus (including pastors, priests, etc.) to emulate His example.
The main reason why I believe in that figurative “wall of separation” between church and state is to keep the church focused on the matters pertaining to it, and to keep the infectious tentacles of the government from reaching out and grabbing and regulating the church to death. The involvement between them is a two way street, and I don’t believe that the church should risk giving up some or all of its autonomy for political gains.
That doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t use our constitutional rights to exercise our religion while simultaneously being involved in the political process in our country. By all means, please vote, make your voices heard, and seek to make a difference. Maybe you should even run for office. None of those things are wicked or unethical. In fact, given the fact that so many have fallen in service to this country while defending those rights, you might be unethical and wicked for NOT doing at least a few of the things I mentioned.
However, Christian conservatives and activists should be very careful. We cannot follow our desire to make a difference to such an extent that we turn political participation into a second god. Instead, we must be sure that we keep track of both what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God, and to act accordingly.