Separation of Church and State

Let every person subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. (Romans 13:1)

As we inaugurate the 45th President of the United States, I’ve been thinking about our concept of separation of church and state. Sometimes I hear this interpreted to mean we are to be free FROM religion, which to my thinking was not the original intent. Sometimes we interpret this to mean the government has no business meddling with people’s religious practices, but the church should be free to meddle in the government.

A little research on the subject led me to an excellent article by Dr. Ellen Holmes Pearson, Associate Professor at University of North Carolina. The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

This did not come out of a vacuum, as anyone who paid any attention at all in history class knows. Five hundred years ago this very year the Reformation started an avalanche of change throughout the Western world. The Holy Roman Catholic church began to splinter into dozens and dozens of different new denominations.

It seems to be lodged deep with the human DNA to start something new whenever differences of opinion cannot be resolved. So it was that England became an Anglican dominated country for reasons that I will cover in some future blog. But not everyone in England thought that was much of an improvement on the Roman Catholic Church.

Such folks sorted themselves into two additional groups: The Puritans who thought the situation could be salvaged with some radical changes and the Separatists, aka Pilgrims, who thought it was hopeless and distance was the only solution.

As the Separatists and Puritans emigrated to the new world, they wanted to make sure no government told them how/when/where they had to worship. However, that only applied to them. Other people who came along shortly after their foothold in the New England were expected to fall in line with their way of expressing their freedom of religion.

Roger Williams was banned from the Massachusetts Bay for his religious beliefs, which differed from these freedom-of-religion-seeking leaders. In 1636 he went off to found Rhode Island where people of all religions were welcome.

The same principle applied in Maryland where Lord Baltimore drafted the Maryland toleration Act in 1649 giving those colonists the right to worship as they pleased. The idea also took hold in Pennsylvania, founded by William Penn in 1681. People were welcome to worship in their own way, but only Anglicans and Quakers were eligible for political positions.

According to Dr. Holmes Pearson the term “separation of church and state” first appeared in an1802 letter Thomas Jefferson sent men affiliated with the Danbury Baptists Association of Connecticut. Jefferson wrote religion is “a matter which lies solely between Man & his God” and government ought not have influence over opinions.” He further wrote the legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

Jefferson introduced the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom in 1779, which became law in 1786, thus separating that state’s government from any established church and asserting a person’s religious opinions were not the business of the government.

Given the amount of energy we devote to both religious and political issues it occurs to me this issue is still of great importance to us. And, we’re still sorting out what that means for our every day actions.

However we interpret that concept, we are free to pray for one another and the future of our country – at least in the privacy of our own homes and worship centers. That seems like a very good thing to do as we inaugurate the 45th President of this great experiment in democracy with promises of liberty and justice for all.

Dear God, grant wisdom, compassion, courage, and a sense of cooperation and collaboration to all those we elect to govern us and those we select to lead our faith communities. Amen.

One Comment

  1. Cynthia Vold Forde

    Signing up!

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