Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Quandary of Church/State Separation

The great British intellectual G.K. Chesterton once said,

"A coziness between church and state is good for the state and bad for the church"
I sometimes wonder if 21st century evangelicals understand that the concept of the separation of church and state was to protect the church from the state and not vice versa. It only takes a cursory study of history to realize that when our churches try to exert their influence through political means that it doesn't take long for our churches to become pawns in the hands of the politicians they hoped to influence.

It's interesting to note that Jesus lived during a time when the Roman empire was at its apex. There was much corruption in government, religious people were discriminated against and there was much immorality in society. But Jesus did not run for mayor of Jerusalem. He did not stump for a "good, God-fearing" guy that wanted to run for governor. Jesus realized that transformation in society would not come through mere political power.

There is much debate on whether a government can legislate morality. My opinion is that I don't think government can legislate morality. For, you see, morality comes from the heart as Jesus so eloquently pointed out in the Sermon on the Mount. The government can punish me if I murder someone one, but it can't stop me from hating someone. It can throw me in jail for raping a women; it can't stop the lust in my heart. The government could make its citizens go to church, but it can't make a person love God with all their heart, soul and mind.

So it does concern me that so many of my evangelical brethren desire to see change primarily happen through the political channels. There is a place for fighting against institutional structures of sin (things like slavery and abortion come to mind), but we need to choose our battles wisely. Nor do I think that Christians should excuse ourselves from running for public office or voting for candidates that hold our values. But I have to admit that I do cringe everytime I hear someone call for a return to our "godly heritage." And when was this? If we're really honest with ourselves, can we really say that America was ever a truly Christian nation?

Were we a Christian nation when we lied to the original habitants of this great land, lied and cheated them, and nearly wiped out an entire population of Native Americans? Were we a Christian nation when we enslaved those of African descent and deprived them of certain unalienable rights like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Were we a Christian nation when we deprived women the right to vote? Were we a Christian nation when we put Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II? And have we been a Christian nation since the year of my birth when our highest court said that it's alright for mothers to take the life of their unborn children?

Look at what Gregory Boyd, pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota has to say on this matter:
"I believe a significant segment of American evangelicalism is guilty of nationalistic and political idolatry. To a frightful degree, I think, evangelicals fuse the kingdom of God with a preferred version of the kingdom of the world (whether it's our national interests, a particular form of government, a particular political program, or so on). Rather than focusing our understanding of God's kingdom on the person of Jesus who, incidentally, never allowed himself to get pulled into the political disputes of his day. I believe many of us American evangelicals have allowed our understanding of the kingdom of God to be polluted with political ideals, agendas, and issues."
Read more of Boyd's comments here.
There are many that claim that America began to go down the tubes in 1962 when the Supreme Court said that it was unconstitutional to have state-sanctioned prayer in public school. But do we really believe this? The Supreme Court cannot stop a person from praying! It can stop formulaic, public prayers, but it cannot stop an individual from talking with God. Lori and I have chosen to send our children to public schools and I do not what their teachers leading my kids in prayer or teaching their interpretation of the Bible. I agree that is best left to the home and the church.

Think about it... If you're a Christian, do you really want a Muslim teacher leading prayers for your Christian child? Would you want an atheistic second grade teacher commenting on the Old Testament to your nine-year-old? Remember, the original intent of the separation of the church and state was to protect the church from the state. One of the great things about the United States is that we have the freedom to worship who we want, when we want and where we want. Christian leaders that confuse our faith with political involvement put our religious freedoms at risk. Preachers that use the pulpit as a soapbox on who they think their congregations should vote for not only use bad judgment, but risk certain protections afforded by the government. Jesse Jackson and Jerry Falwell are on two sides of the same coin.

With all that said, though, it does seem that political correctness has run amok at times. What the First Amendent actually says is this,
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
What the Constitution says is that American citizens should be able to practice their religion freely without government interference and that the government should not make an "official" religion that everyone has to adhere to. So it is ridiculous when a government building cannot have a nativity scene out front or a kindergartener that wants to write a book report on his hero Jesus is discriminated against. But we need to also be respectful of those that come from other faith traditions. If we want to be able to share our faith at work, then we need to afford others the same freedom. If Christians think its absurd that retailers won't say "Merry Christmas" (and I do think it's absurd), then we also don't need to get hacked off when that same retailer says "Happy Hannakuh."

The respect that others have for us will increase when we as Christians can speak with a consistent voice. We need to continue to speak against the horror of abortion, but we also need to continue to adopt and help babies that are born to unwed mothers. We need to continue to lift up the biblical model of marriage, but we also need to be active in reaching out to those living with HIV/AIDS. The world around us looks upon in bewilderment when we spend thousands of dollars on granite statues of the ten commandments, yet we neglect the poor and support foreign policy that results in the killing of innocent children.

I call America to live up to its ideal of being "the land of the free and the home of the brave." I think there is no greater country on earth than the U.S. The gospel can be spread freely within our borders because of the freedoms we possess and the gospel goes to the world because of the wealth that exists here. But one only needs to look at China to see that a government made up of Christian leaders is not necessarily needed to see the church grow rapidly. More than anything, we need people like you and me who are desperately in love with Christ that live lives that are radically different than everyone else because they are characterized by faith, hope and love.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love this article. I am a political science and history major. It pains me to hear some Christians talk about the role that the government should be playing in religion or Christianity. I usually do not speak up because the majority of the people in my circle of Christian friends do not believe what your article speaks about as being true. Often times I sit silently and say nothing. However I cringe inside when I listen to their ideas of religous freedom. I just want to say thank you, and I agree.