My late, great friend and Wake Forest colleague James Dunn wrote those words in 1991. As a consummate analyst of Baptists and religious liberty, Dunn was right — then and now. From the beginnings of the Republic, religious freedom seems ever up for grabs in some way or another; a constitutional mandate rhetorically affirmed, but often grudgingly conceded. In these United States, somebody’s religion is almost always under suspicion, and debates over the First Amendment rights abound.
Dunn was a genius in cutting through complexity with edgy simplicity. Nuance was not his cup of (sweet) tea! In a single sentence he sets forth the order of religious libertarianism: religious liberty is the inalienable, constitutional right, while separation of church and state is the guardrail. It’s not the other way around.
Religious liberty, the jewel in the American constitutional crown, was a unique and radical idea in the 18th century world. My Baptist forebears understood it as inseparable from the belief that God alone is judge of conscience, and neither state nor state-privileged church can judge the conscience of heretic or atheist. True faith was uncoerced faith, not required by government mandate. The “Orthodox Creed” of British Baptists (1679), says it clearly: “And the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute blind obedience, destroys liberty of conscience, and reason also, it being repugnant to both.”
In this column, I’ve probably addressed freedom of religion as much or more than most any other topic — how we got it, and how we keep it. But I remain cautious about the use of the phrase separation of church and state, not because I question its purpose as means of protecting both entities (church and state) from each other, but because the term should never be thought to imply a clean detachment. As I’ve written repeatedly in this space (some may suggest ad nauseum), church and state in the U.S. are not pristinely separate — they simply test the limits of separationist boundaries again and again.
These days, conscience prompts me to approach the term separation of church and state cautiously, for several reasons. First, because religious institutions continue to receive tax exemption from the state and ordained clergy are granted housing allowances as part of their government-tax-relief-benefits. Those state-based privileges mitigate against a too-purist use of separationist language. (Full disclosure: I’ve not had them for 21 years.)
Second, because even the phrase, separation of church and state, when used generically for describing government’s relationship with all religious communions, illustrates the inherent privileging of Christianity in American society. We seldom if ever speak of “separation of synagogue and state,” or “mosque and state.” Is it time for a new, more pluralistic comparison?
Third, because separation of church and state should never mean that faith and conscience cannot be carried into the public square. Rather, it means that all Americans have the right to give voice to their views in the pluralistic environment, resisting when necessary government privileging of one religion over another.
Fourth, because I am wary of how the phrase is defined and who’s doing the defining. For years, many Christians have challenged church/state separation, arguing that absence of such words from the Constitution weakens their impact in the religio-political realm. Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association (Connecticut, 1802) established the language of a “wall of separation” between church and state. Opponents fear that such a “wall” became a governmental means of excising Christian influence and ideals from their rightful place in the public square by “taking prayer out of public schools,” omitting religious influences from public school history texts, or attempting to remove deity-specific prayer from government public meetings.
Some simply dismissed the term and the idea altogether. W.A. Criswell, legendary pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas, punctuated his opposition by asserting that separation of church and state was an idea concocted by “infidels,” (unbelievers). The present Attorney General of the United States, prior to his appointment, offered a barrel-full of denunciations on the subject, declaring the idea of church/state separation “an extra-constitutional doctrine” and “a recent theory that is unhistorical and unconstitutional.”
The phrase may be making a conservative comeback, evident in a Religious Liberty Day (January 17, 2018) essay by Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore and Oklahoma Senator (and Baptist) James Lankford, entitled “The Real Meaning of Separation of Church and State.” They rightly insist that, “The concept . . . reinforces the legal right of a free people to freely live their faith, even in public, without fear of government coercion. Free exercise means you may have a faith and you may live it.” Thus, “the church should not rule over the state, and the state cannot rule over the church. Religion is too important to be a government program or a political pageant.” The article concludes: “Separation of church and state doesn’t shut down our debates over religion in the public square; it guarantees the freedom for us to respectfully have those debates.”
I agree with those statements both on religious freedom and its resulting debates. It’s their illustrations of appropriate church/state relationships that give me pause. They offer positive assessment of the Supreme Court decisions that deity specific “ceremonial” prayer is acceptable at town council meetings and the like (Town of Greece v. Galloway, 2014), and the 2017 Trinity Lutheran v. Comer that allowed state funds to be used to repair a playground on church property. My Baptist conscience compels opposition to those rulings since they seem to privilege a particular kind of prayer at a government gathering and privilege a religious institution with state funds. More to come, I fear.
A friend who identifies himself as a “none” (no discernible religious commitments) offers another conscientious objection to such church/state debates. Says he: “You Christians are watching your state privileged ‘empire’ collapse, with fewer people engaging in religious community, bringing their children to church, or experiencing conversion later in life. You built these big church-plants and you either can’t keep up the payments or the repairs, so you’re running to the government for help, with your playgrounds, your buildings, and your dogmas. You’re already tax exempt; your minister’s get tax breaks, and donors get tax credit for funding you. But still you want more, and when that doesn’t happen you scream persecution. What went wrong with your gospel that you need government to prop it up?” Whew!
This summer, Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, is offering a course on religious liberty that includes site visits in Virginia and Washington, D.C., for a diverse consortium of ministerial students. James Dunn would have told them: “To walk past a sign that says ‘Baptist’ and to not proclaim liberty from the pulpit of a church so tagged constitutes false advertising.” That’s a good start.