Religious Liberty: Do You Hear What I Hear?

When I hear someone use the phrase, “separation of church and state,” I admit that my first reaction is negative.  While I am well aware of the history behind the phrase and the constitutional principle that it embodies, there can be little doubt that this phrase has become a lighting rod in the culture wars in our country.  Perhaps it was always contentious, but it remains so now more than ever.

I suppose that’s one of the reasons that the Religious Liberty Committee of the Baptist General Association of Virginia (BGAV) included the language “separation of church and state” in a resolution presented to Virginia Baptists at their annual meeting.  After some debate and questioning from a few pastors objecting to the language, the resolution overwhelmingly passed. 

I have previously discussed my opinions regarding the BGAV’s religious liberty resolution in my post, “Virginia Baptists & Religious Liberty.”  Because of questions that have arisen within the comment stream here and in an ongoing dialogue over at the BaptistLife Forums regarding the BGAV’s resolution, I thought it might be helpful to explore the issue of “separation of church and state” in a broader context.

As a conservative Southern Baptist who is concerned about religious liberty issues, I have come to view the use of the phrase “separation of church and state” as not only negative, but also divisive.  Bruce Gourley, a Baptist historian and owner of the BaptistLife website, asked why I thought the idea of “separation of church and state” drives people apart.  After all, our Baptist forefathers fought and died for the idea of a free church in a free state.

Gourley has compiled quotes from famous Baptists of yesteryear in support of the principle of separation of church and state.  Among the many is a 1791 quote from famous Virginia Baptist pastor John Leland:

“Is conformity of sentiments in matters of religion essential to the happiness of civil government? Not at all. Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of the mathematics. Let every man speak freely without fear–maintain the principles that he believes–worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing, i.e., see that he meets with no personal abuse or loss of property for his religious opinions. Instead of discouraging him with proscriptions, fines, confiscation or death, let him be encouraged, as a free man, to bring forth his arguments and maintain his points with all boldness; then if his doctrine is false it will be confuted, and if it is true (though ever so novel) let others credit it. When every man has this liberty what can he wish for more? A liberal man asks for nothing more of government.” John Leland, “Right of Conscience Inalienable, and Therefore, Religious Opinions Not Cognizable By The Law,” The Writings of the Later Elder John Leland, published in 1845.

As I read the above quote by Leland, there is really nothing that I would disagree with from a constitutional point of view.  Leland has articulated the principles enshrined within the First Amendment, but he did it without ever using the phrase “separation of church and state.”

You see, I really do believe that we can find much common ground on religious liberty issues when we are willing to set aside language that is unduly contentious and divisive.  The same can be said about traditionalists who claim that America was “founded as a Christian nation.”   I think I know what people mean when they say this, but there are many who go into orbit at just the mention of America’s Christian heritage. 

Was our country founded with Christianity as the official state religion?  Of course not.  Many of the original settlers, including Baptists, left England and Europe to escape from state sponsored religious persecution.  Has our nation’s founding been influenced by Christianity and Judeo/Christian principles?  I think it would be hard to argue otherwise.

So, here’s the questions.  When the Barry Lynns of the world argue that there must be a strict “separation of church and state,” what do you hear him saying?  When the David Bartons of the world proclaim that “America was founded as a Christian nation,” what do you hear him saying?  I know what I hear.  But, as my wife reminds me almost daily, I have selective hearing.  I’m guessing that you do to.

4 comments for “Religious Liberty: Do You Hear What I Hear?

  1. November 14, 2010 at 5:51 AM

    We’re not doing anything with the whole separation thing that we don’t do with the Bible, too. And if we’ll mess with what the Bible says, we’ll mess with just about anything.

    The constitution says the gummint ain’t supposed to make no laws respecting religion. One would think that would be enough to say, then, but it isn’t.

    The Bible says that Jesus is God and it also refers to the Holy Spirit in the same manner, albeit less plainly. So we make a whole set of conclusions about that, and then teach them. So we have a bunch of Christians who freely parrot the doctrines of the Trinity and such things as “Jesus was fully God as though He were not man at all, and fully man as though He were not God at all” .. but cannot point to scripture to justify the conclusion. So we teach conclusions instead of the Bible.

    Like we teach “separation of church and state” without teaching the constitution.

    I hear them proclaiming their conclusions, generally based on the conclusions they’ve heard from others, generally based on the conclusions they’ve heard from others, generally ………

    You get the idea.

    • November 14, 2010 at 2:58 PM

      Bob,

      I do get the idea :-). I think that it is instructive that the phrase “separation of church and state” was not included in the First Amendment. I believe that the free exercise and establishment clauses, while they must be interpreted, are much stronger than the separation phrase. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. God bless,

      Howell

  2. Stephen Fox
    November 19, 2010 at 2:24 PM

    Howell: This could go to the heart of your problem in the various views of church state separation:

    http://www.religiondispatches.org/dispatches/sarahposner/3760/obama%E2%80%99s_supposed_%E2%80%9Creligion_dilemma%E2%80%9D_and_american_exceptionalism_/

    • November 19, 2010 at 7:28 PM

      Stephen,

      Thanks for the link here and at BaptistLife. Sarah Posner obviously has a certain viewpoint which she writes from. I think she has every right to her opinion, but I do think there is a middle ground for the overwhelming majority of Christians — particularly conservative, evangelicals — that Ms. Posner does not want to talk about. Contrary to popular belief on the left, most Christians I know do not take their marching orders from Newt Gingrich or Michelle Bachmann. Truth be told, most church goers might have heard of Gingrich, but would not be able to tell you what position he held in the government. As for Michelle Bachmann, most people would go, “Who?”

      As to Obama, I do think that his religious background, as George W. Bush’s before him, and every other President before them, is influenced, to a lesser or greater degree, by their religious/spiritual beliefs. Do you think that President Obama, through his 20 years in Rev. Wright’s church, was influenced at all in his beliefs? Do you think that this influence carries over — a little, some, a lot, none — in his domestic and foreign policies?

      I have written before that I think we tread on dangerous ground when we question someone else’s personal salvation and Christian faith. From a Biblical perspective, we are to make “our” calling and salvation sure. That being said, I do think that it is within the bounds of civil discourse and political debate to be opposed to those things that we view as immoral and/or unwise. There are many issues that have both a religious component and a moral component. Both play off of one another, but I think that we can vigorously oppose Obama’s stance on homosexuality or abortion, for instance, without questioning his personal Christian faith.

      I mentioned to BDW on another post, in response to one of your comments, that I take President Obama at his word that he is a Christian. I will continue to do so unless and until he denies Christ or takes some such action that would self-identify him (or anyone else for that matter) as no longer holding to the Christian faith. I do not expect that to happen. However, Christians can still oppose some of Obama’s policies without questioning his faith. (I do think that those who call Obama’s faith into question or accuse him of being a secret Muslim look foolish and do ultimately damage their own credibilty.) And, the overwhelming majority oppose those policies based on their own beliefs, not necessary because Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, or Michelle Bachmann have told us to do so, nothwithstanding what Ms. Posner might like to think. Thanks and God bless,

      Howell

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