Can the “state” really be separated from the “church”?
We have all heard this now famous statement as a justification for any event in which a Christian who works within a secular government system or private sector business who uses their religious Faith as a means to justify their practices at the office.
But how can we ever expect this alleged divide to actually occur?
I want to first point out that the phrase “separation of church and state” does not exist in the U.S. Constitution. Many of those who throw it around like it has some sort of legal precedent are simply incorrect. In fact the phrase, written by Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptists, was meant to further explain what the First Amendment says: “[the] Constitution prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, [or] impeding the free exercise of religion.”
The government cannot establish a religion, which is an obvious shot at the Church of England. The Constitution also protects against “impeding the free exercise of religion.” This is possibly the most important part, and is clearly the section of the clause that gets forgotten. The government cannot make a law that prohibits our religious practices. There can be no law that outlaws prayer.
Where the courts have parsed this argument over the past few decades, is that they separate Congressional “law” and public “policy.”
However, how can anyone expect that people of faith can simply leave our worldview at the door when we walk into a government building? That would be like telling an atheist that they MUST believe in God when they enter into a religious structure. It is absurd.
Religion is one of the foundational belief systems in any person of any faith. It informs our opinion on almost every subject from gender relations to abdication of power. The Bible instructs Christians to love everyone, including their enemies. Christians are to follow the laws of man, so long as they do not supersede the laws of God. Christians are to pay their taxes, not steal, lie, or murder people.
Those of us who obey God’s laws are some of the most trustworthy and decent citizens on the planet, regardless of the culture we are in. Those who do not are often vile and bitter individuals, and we should all take a moment to understand that a Christian person does not represent Christianity. People are not always consistent with their principles. Again, this would be like refusing to be a vegan because someone you know who refuses to eat animal products is also a liar or thief.
It would be like saying you are not an American because you’ve broken a speeding law (which I know you have—probably even today).
Being a Christian means that we are to meet the standard of perfection that God himself, in the form of Jesus Christ, put forth as an example. It is an impossible task, and Christians are aware of it.
That being said, in order to try and meet Christ-like standards, we sometimes act against social norms.
If Scripture is clear about certain sins, such as same sex relations or murder, then our principles dictate that we should love the homosexual or murderer, while not condoning their actions. For a Christian, it is a bedrock, fundamental principle that participating in a gay wedding is akin to participating in a murder, in a lie, in a robbery, etc. We become an accomplice.
I tend to use murder because it is such an extreme example of a sin, but it is something that is actually illegal. How about infidelity?
If your best friend came to you and asked you to help facilitate an affair, would that be unethical? Would it be unchristian? Of course. If someone were to come into a store you owned and explicitly told you that they were purchasing an item with the full intent of cheating on their spouse, would you have a right to tell them no? I think most of us would feel the conscious pricking desire to say no, and I would like to think that most of us would have the decency to not become an accomplice.
Would the government then be able to come fine you and FORCE you to sell the item?
I would argue that monogamy is actually more of a social construct than homosexuality. Human nature is to seek pleasure as often as possible. Evolutionary psychology would say that it is due to our need to perpetuate the species. History would say that pre-civilized sexual relations were rarely monogamous. Christianity would call this our “sin nature.” Regardless of title, the idea of infidelity is more natural than marriage.
So why would we have a problem with stopping a cheating husband, while not having a problem with celebrating a gay wedding?
Yet this is the society that has been created for us. Our reality is that it would be better assist in an extra-marital affair than to refuse to bake a wedding cake.
I believe that our principles should be what guides us. A Christian business owner should be able to say no to both of these cases. I also believe that someone who is anti-Christian should be able to say no to making a Christian item that may offend their own beliefs. Either way, the business owner should express their faith, whether it be faith in God or faith in humanism.
A religious person of any kind should have reasonable accommodations made for them, even if they work for the government. Just as a smoker gets several five minute breaks a day, a Muslim should be able to get their prayer time. Just as an atheist can choose to not advocate on behalf of a religious institution, a religious person should be able to choose to not participate in an event that goes against their belief.
It really is not that confusing, and should not be controversial by any means. The true separation of church and state is impossible, just as throwing off decades of parental socialization is impossible. The church guides many of us even more than parents and peers.
I understand that open expression of faith can make non-believers uncomfortable, but do unbelievers understand that their open expressions of fornication, smoking, drinking, drug use, etc. makes Christians feel uncomfortable? Do they understand that telling someone who fundamentally believes in something that informs every action that that foundation is not welcome once they walk through certain doors?
There can be no separation of church and state for the Christian, and that was never the intent of our Founders. The government, however, is constantly overstepping its bounds. Society needs good, honest, decent people in order to thrive. Society is also stopping many good, honest, decent people from being completely free to express themselves.
4 thoughts on “There Can Be No Separation of Church and State”
I appreciate your thoughtful post, but think that, in some respects, it is predicated on fundamental misunderstandings of the Constitution’s separation of church and state.
First, that separation is not merely a First Amendment textual matter as you seem to suppose. Just as the founders did not simply say in the Constitution that there should be separation of powers and checks and balances, but rather actually separated the powers of government among three branches and established checks and balances, they also did not merely say there should be separation of church and state, and rather 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.
That the words “separation of church and state” do not appear in the text of the Constitution assumes much importance, it seems, to some who once mistakenly supposed they were there and, upon learning of their own error, fancy they’ve solved a Constitutional mystery. The absence of the metaphorical phrase commonly used to name one of its principles, though, is no more consequential than the absence of other phrases (e.g., separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism) used to describe other undoubted Constitutional principles.
To the extent that some nonetheless would like confirmation–in those very words–of the founders’ intent to separate government and religion, Madison and Jefferson supplied it. Some try to pass off the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education as simply a reading or even misreading of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists–as if that were the only basis of the Court’s decision. Instructive as that letter is, it played but a small part in the Court’s decision. Rather, the Court discussed the historical context in which the Constitution and First Amendment were drafted, noting the expressed understanding of Madison perhaps even more than Jefferson, and only after concluding its analysis and stating its conclusion did the Court refer–once–to Jefferson’s letter, largely to borrow his catchy metaphor as a clever label or summary of its conclusion. The notion, often heard, that the Court rested its decision solely or largely on that letter is a red herring.
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).
Second, and perhaps more important, the principle does not call for people of faith to set their worldview aside as you seem to suppose. It is important to distinguish between “individual” and “government” action and speech about religion since the Constitution protects the former and constrains the latter. The First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause assures that each individual is free to exercise and express his or her religious views–publicly as well as privately. The Amendment constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion. As government can only act through the individuals comprising its ranks, when those individuals are performing their official duties (e.g., public school teachers instructing students in class), they effectively are the government and thus should conduct themselves in accordance with the First Amendment’s constraints on government. When acting in their individual capacities, they are free to exercise their religions as they please. While figuring out whether someone is speaking or acting for the government in any particular circumstance may sometimes be difficult, making the distinction is critical.
Nor does the constitutional separation of church and state prevent citizens from making decisions based on principles derived from their religions. Moreover, the religious beliefs of government officials naturally may inform their decisions on policies. The principle, in this context, merely constrains government officials not to make decisions with the predominant purpose or primary effect of advancing religion; in other words, the predominant purpose and primary effect must be nonreligious or secular in nature. A government decision coinciding with religious views is not invalid for that reason as long as it has a secular purpose and effect.
Wake Forest University has published a short, objective Q&A primer on the current law of separation of church and state–as applied by the courts rather than as caricatured in the blogosphere. I commend it to you. http://divinity.wfu.edu/religion-and-public-affairs/joint-statement/
Eventually such views lead to segregation as we see in India where Hindu’s are seperate from Muslims.
It enables each faith to live as they please under the laws they want enforced by the government they want.
In South Africa it failed because it was not true segregation one group was held in submission to another.
oSaudi Arabia is a good example they live the way they want to live and if I move or work there I must comply.
So the Trump solution to the American problem would be to divide America into a Christian and a Muslim state rather like India and Pakistan.
We all answer to the Constitution here in America, so that should (hopefully) negate the idea that individual religious law supersedes US law.
I understand that America is biased toward a Christian view, but Christianity is not American law.
As far as Trump goes, please understand that I advocate none of his policies, and his rhetoric scares me.
Thanks for your reply. If it comes to a crunch between belief and US law the law must rule.
I understand your feelings about Mr Trump but the best way to increase a man’s popularity is to outlaw him.
People become suspicious of the outlawer’s motives.
All over the world politicians are on rough waters meanwhile we are busy throwing money at Mars.