American Genesis: Separation of Church & State

             As noted earlier, separation of the church from governmental or societal affairs is not found in the Federal Constitution, but rather, in an address by President Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association. His comments were in response to a rumor that an official state religion (denomination) was to be recognized. Jefferson countered with the constitutional answer that there would be a “wall of separation” keeping the government from making such a declaration. But, he did not advocate forbidding religion’s influence on government. Jefferson did not believe such separation prudent, as he fought during his presidency for mandatory Bible reading in American schools—even though Jefferson was not a Christian. 

             While the notion that the Church should stay out of government affairs was foreign to America’s Framers, many of them did hold to a type of separation that at first thought might seem incongruous to moral government. 

             Looking at the stories in the Bible, have you ever wondered why Israel, when faced with an evil King bent on oppressing the people and abusing his power, that God simply did not replace that King with someone after His own heart? Has it puzzled you why God would send prophets to warn the kings, and even develop relationships with them—but they were not to be replacements. Why didn’t God just replace Saul with Samuel at the first sign of trouble; or Ahaz with Obed, or Jehoiakim, or Zedekiah with Jeremiah? Part of the answer rests in the covenant God made with King David to continue his descendants on the throne. But, there may be an additional answer: God called certain men to preach and teach, not to rule. 

             God has separated the work of the ministry from the work of political leadership. When King Uzziah (reputed in the scriptures as a good King) tried to perform a priestly function he was smitten by God with leprosy. Eli the priest was a Judge (Governor) for a time, but not the kind he should have been. His combined political and priestly leadership was the only time such a Judge ever existed in Israel. The callings, one of ministry of the Gospel, and the other of political leadership, are different. The church is to act as the conscience of society—not its overlord. The church can affirm the government’s actions or condemn them. But, it must never exercise a presumed authority over the government and require, under some temporal or eternal punishment, obedience. In fact, nowhere in the New Testament has God vested such authority to the Church. 

             The Founding Fathers had a similar belief. The 1821 constitution of New York, in Article VII, Section 4 reads:

             “Whereas the ministers of the Gospel are, by their profession, dedicated to the service of God, and the care of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their functions: therefore, no minister of the Gospel, or priest of any denomination whatsoever, shall, at any time hereafter, under any pretense or description whatever, be eligible to, or capable of holding any civil or military office or place within this state.” 

             We might paraphrase it this way: “Pastors, you are too valuable to us as spiritual leaders for you to abandon your call to a lesser political duty, so we won’t tempt you to do it.” This provision in the New York constitution was not meant to exclude Christians in the general populous from serving in public office—only those called to the higher office of ministry. Throughout the old form of the Union, Christians were actually given special protection against electoral discrimination. It was another way of guaranteeing that a specific Christian sect would not dominate the political climate of America. Specifically, New Jersey’s 1777 constitution and Pennsylvania’s 1838 constitution included provisions stating that being Protestant was not a disqualification for public office. North Carolina’s Declaration of Rights stated quite clearly: 

             “That no person who shall deny the being of God, or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the Divine authority of the Old or New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the state, shall be capable of holding any office, or place of trust or profit, in the civil department, within this state.” 

             In spite of this, we see a contrast between the states and the federal government. Not all first state constitutions contained such provisions excluding active members of the ministry from elected or appointed political service. Certainly, the Continental Congress did not. One signer of the Declaration of Independence was a minister—John Witherspoon of New Jersey. 

             When we hear the term “separation,” we should keep a right perspective about its meaning. Separation should preserve the ministry of the Gospel without deterring its influence upon all men—whether makers of policy, or citizens under it. Nor did the principle of separation mean that Christians should be excluded altogether from public service. John Jay, the country’s first Supreme Court Justice remarked, 

             “Providence has given our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest, of a Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.”

             Nor was the separation doctrine supposed to imply that Christian principles had no place in state government. Some state governments, at their inceptions, actually required that office holders be believers in Christianity. Maryland’s Declaration of Rights, Right 35, Section 55: 

             “That no other test or qualification ought to be required, on admission to any office of trust or profit, than such oath of support and fidelity to this state, and such oath of office as shall be directed by this convention or the legislature of this state, and a declaration of a belief in the Christian religion.” 

             Right 36 went on to note that a special form should be used for administering an oath, or, “affirmation” with Quakers and Mennonites (again recognizing the diversity in Christianity), avoiding sectionalism yet preserving the biblical principles whereby they designed to govern. There were, however, times when Christians were not installed into office, and those whose views were disagreeable to a belief in Jesus Christ were elected. Yet, many of these people had such a high regard for the Bible and its defining role in America’s culture that there were few instances in which their actions were distasteful to the public. 

             The oaths that elected men had to prescribe in order to take their office required a personal affirmation of the Christian faith. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Virginia Statute on Religious Liberties found that doctrine anathema to his belief in natural rights and personal liberties; and noted in the document (passed by the Virginia legislature, and a cornerstone piece of historical American religious liberties) that 

             “…the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right…” 

             Maryland was not the only state to require an oath or qualification for office. Massachusetts, Chapter VI, Article I: 

            “Any person chosen governor, lieutenant–governor, councillor, senator or representative, and accepting the trust, shall, before he proceed to execute the duties of his place or office, take, make, and subscribe the following declaration, viz” “I, A.B. do declare that I believe in the Christian religion and have a firm persuasion of its truth; and that I am seized and possessed, in my own right, of the property required by the Constitution, as one qualification for the office or place to which I am elected.” 

             Points about basic beliefs are extremely important in the debate over what constitutes appropriate tests and qualifications for governance. The very issue of religious tests as qualifications for an office were brought forward during the Virginia debates on the ratification of the Federal Constitution. Some argued against adoption because the Constitution disallowed such tests. Zachariah Johnson, addressing the convention said, 

             “You will find that the exclusion of tests will strongly tend to establish religious freedom. If test were required, and if the Church of England, or any other were established, I might be excluded from any office under the government, because my conscience might not permit me to take the test required…The difficulty of establishing a uniformity of religion in this country is immense. The extent of the country is very great. The multiplicity of sects is very great likewise.” 

             That the founders wanted to protect personal religious liberty was not being debated. What they differed on was their method to accomplish their goals. Yet, regardless of either method (tests or no tests) it should be realized that neither required membership in a particular sect or denomination of Christianity. By a belief in Christianity, the Founders could have only meant one of two things—a belief in the Bible as God’s revelation to man, or a belief in Jesus Christ as the Savior. It is probably true that both were intended. Most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence founded religious societies, wrote Gospel tracts, and attended public worship in their official capacities. It was five–time Virginia Governor Patrick Henry who said:

             “It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionist, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”              

Interestingly, Henry was also a strong opponent to the ratification of the Constitution. Yet, when it was ratified he fully supported the new government and the Constitution, proving his patriotism and loyalty to his country. Eventually, Henry registered himself as a Federalist.

Tomorrow: Christian Nation, Christian Leaders?

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