St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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Separation of Church and State Revisited

It may be that people think we’ve always had the legislated separation of church and state that exists in our country.  Most people would know that’s not true but we tend to forget.  We take for granted this separation, even though the term appears in none of our official documents.  Jefferson spoke of a “wall between church and state,” but that was in correspondence and had no legal authority.

The First Amendment to the Constitution simply says:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Direct intervention is not part of the bargain.  Persuasion is the order of the day in civic affairs regarding church and state, not legislation.

In any case, this arrangement has not always held sway.  It remains rare throughout the world to have an arrangement like we do.  In colonial times Maryland was a Roman Catholic colony, while Massachusetts was as Puritan as you can get (oh how that has changed).  If you wanted freedom of religion you headed for either Pennsylvania or Rhode Island, the latter of which was initially formed specifically as a refuge from the intolerance in Massachusetts.

The moment you crack the Bible to look at these issues you realize that the concept of separation of church and state had no meaning for either the Old or the New Testament peoples.  The people of Israel strove for a theocracy, and consequently they were exceedingly reluctant to move into a form of leadership like the rest of the ancient near east; namely, kingship, because that would usurp God’s role as supreme leader of the people.

Early Christians protested Roman insistence on allegiance to the emperor because the emperor had been elevated to the status of a god.  Of course when Christianity gained the upper hand, it was elevated to state religion.  There’s a long history of suppression that goes both ways on the spectrum.

We owe it to St. Augustine, the bishop of Hippo in North Africa, for the early thinking that moves eventually to what we in America experience on a day-to-day basis.  Augustine’s book The City of God was an early attempt to identify the role of the state in relation to the state.  For Augustine, the state was to exercise temporal power in order that the church would be free to address the spiritual needs of the people.  This concept would later come up in Luther’s writings on the relationship between church and state (Luther had been an Augustinian monk, remember), which no less a figure than our James Madison held to be the beginning of a modern idea of the relationship.

The system has never been perfect.  That’s because we separate church and state fairly easily, but when you step into the arena of ethical issues, it becomes impossible to separate religion from politics.  And that’s a good thing!  We should be arguing about basic matters that concern us at a deep level of conscience and consciousness.  If you hold an ethical position of your church that’s not consonant with what the state is doing, then you have the right to protest, to withhold your vote or support, and so on.  In this election year, think carefully about the relationship between your religious belief and even more, your ethics, and what the various candidates and parties say they intend to do or will continue to support.   Then act on your convictions.

What an extraordinary gift to live in a country where such public debate is possible.

october 2012