“Separation of church and state.” Few phrases have caused such division and controversy. From the famous Scopes Monkey Trial to battles over the Ten Commandments on public display to stories of high school coaches praying with their teams, there is no shortage of opinions.
Recently, the phrase has even become part of the dialogue in Republican presidential primaries. After, I questioned the faith claims and behaviors of one of the leading candidates, several objectors decried, “What about separation of church and state?”
Surprisingly, evangelical Christian supporters of the candidate – ones who in the past have traditionally defended this is a “Christian nation” – have begun using a slight variation on the phrase when they proclaim that we are electing “a commander-in-chief, not a pastor-in-chief.”
But all of this is symptomatic that even evangelicals have become victims of a great misunderstanding about God.
I shared in my recent post titled “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Supreme Dictator of the Universe…and You’re Okay With It” how God is the ultimate source law of the universe.
As the ultimate source law God not only initiated and controls all the physical laws of the universe that govern us (laws of gravity, energy, motion, etc) but also what I call the “personal laws” – love, compassion, intimacy, grace, justice, forgiveness, as so on. These are the laws that humankind must obey if it most wants to flourish.
Furthermore, I explained how, in using the name “I Am,” God identified himself not only with the most personal concept there is (the “I”) but also with the biggest possible concept there is…existence. For what is bigger, more powerful or long lasting than existence itself?
In another post, I explained how God as the source law of all other natural laws is, therefore, also the most natural part of the universe. We have created a false supernatural line separating God from the very natural world. Consequently, as we discover more and more about the universe, coming up with natural explanations, God gets smaller and smaller to us all the time.
In the end we have managed to compartmentalize God.
We dedicate days that are specifically for him and other days that are not. We erect buildings designed to serve him and other ones that are meant for our normal daily lives.
We deem both activities and professions as either “non-secular” or “secular,” separating out the “religious” from “regular” parts of our lives.
And we’ve managed to put the sciences in a category wholly apart – as though this ultimate source law had little to do with them at all.
Such compartmentalization is obviously a far cry from the concept of God having the bigness of existence. And when you replace “God” with the word “existence” you begin to realize how ridiculous it all can be.
Do we have days or building where we acknowledge existence and ones we don’t? Do we tell scientists to do their work but just don’t acknowledge existence’s part?
Do we have movies or songs where we celebrate existence but other ones where we have to pretend that existence doesn’t exist at all?
And what about when it comes to questions of separation of church and state?[i]
Should we fire teachers for talking about existence? Should we forbid public buildings from displaying existence’s rules like “no running through the halls” or “smoking is bad for your health?”
Because here’s the thing about God: God does not exist within the context of religion or the confines of a church building or a day of the week and his existence isn’t dependent on people’s beliefs at all. God exists every day and in every place whether we’d like him to or not.
But if we’re not supposed to acknowledge God in state buildings, and yet God is the source law of ALL laws, does that mean we need to remove a2 + b2 = c2 from our schools as well? After all, that is a natural law of existence, is it not?
Likewise, does separation of church and state mean that we shouldn’t choose our leaders based on laws of dignity and respect?
Now some at this point will get concerned and ask, “Is Steve advocating a theocracy?” And I would say, “Absolutely not!”
There are legitimate reasons why our founding fathers set things up the way they did. For one, it must be acknowledged that, though God exists, there are differences in opinion of what he’s like. And anytime you put broken, potentially selfish, individuals with different opinions in too much power over others’ spiritual lives the results can be devastating and even counterproductive.
Additionally, the primary concern that the early founders had was not with God but with the church institution and the intermixing of it with government function.
James Madison, known as the “Father of the Constitution” once wrote:
The settled opinion here is, that religion is essentially distinct from civil Government, and exempt from its cognizance; that a connection between them is injurious to both (Letter to Edward Everett, March 18, 1823).
Anytime you mix the different disciplines of groups the results can be negative.
For example, in any given hospital you will have different staff and departments. There are doctors to perform the procedures, administrators, the billing office, cafeteria staff, a pharmacy, and many others – each one with a different function. But if cafeteria workers started performing surgeries, or billing office personnel started filling prescriptions, or even (as some support staff will agree) if doctors did the billing, it could obviously be very disastrous. And depending on the person, if one of the administrators did the cooking, it could also be calamitous.
At the same time, every person in that hospital is still working for the same ultimate purpose and vision – to help patients. Thus, if God created the universe and this world for a purpose, the fact that there are different functions for individuals and institutions, does not excuse us from living out God’s vision and purpose.
The phrase is “separation of church and state,” not “separation of God and state” and as we’ve already noted, God does not exist within the confines of church.
Even Thomas Jefferson in the very same letter to the Danbury Baptists, where he mentioned the phrase “separation of church and state,” recognized the existence of God when he stated:
I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.
The main point is, yes, we can spend a lot of time arguing about “separation of church and state” and what it means – whether prayer should be allowed in school, whether crosses can be used as public memorials, whether faith is essential for public office – but that does not change the fact that God is still there.
We can fight over whether the Ten Commandments should be displayed in a courthouse or not, but regardless of whether the words remain, it is still wrong to murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, covet, and dishonor your parents. And it would even be foolish not to take a break from your work once in a while and even more foolish to put anything above the laws of God/existence.
Not believing in God and choosing not to follow him doesn’t make him or his laws disappear.
Now in regards to the recent phrase by Evangelicals that we are electing a “commander-in-chief, not a pastor-in-chief,” it is absolutely correct that we are choosing someone for a very different function than the pastorate. But when the implication is that the faith and personal behavior of that individual is no longer important, then I’m afraid those who speak it are guilty of the same kind of compartmentalization of God.
According to Evangelicals own teachings Christ is God and all things were created through Christ (John 1). If God, and thus Christ, is the source law of all that exists, that means that the rules of this world are a reflection of Christ’s very character.
And, therefore, Christ’s character reveals to us the very personal laws that enable humankind to best thrive in the universe.
What is that character? Paul gives us a clue to some of it when he tells us the fruit of those who follow Christ is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. He then goes on to tell us, “against such things there is no law.” (Gal 5:22-23).
Would it not be wise then when choosing someone to effectively lead our country that we choose someone who can live by those standards?
Other than Christ himself, is there anyone perfect who can always live out every one of those rules? No. But that’s why we also have the laws of forgiveness and grace for those humbly seek it.
Does the President of the United States have to be a Christian? I believe that’s really the wrong question.
The question is: does this person have the behaviors, attitudes and beliefs that reflect how humankind can best flourish?
But when that person’s character runs antithetical to the very nature of the creator of the universe, no matter what that person promises they can do, the question then becomes, “At what cost?”
Some fear that we have no choice – that choosing someone who is antithetical is the only way to defeat someone whom they see as even more antithetical.
But the question is, who or what do you fear?
Do you fear the other candidate, or do you fear the one in charge of all existence? Because no matter who ends up becoming the president, God is always there.
And I don’t know about you, but when it comes to the ultimate source of the universe, I’d like to make sure I’m always on his side.
[i] Please note: when it comes to discussions specifically about the constitutionality of religious establishment I feel that the phrase “separation of church and state” is an incomplete interpretation and is often used as a biased way of avoiding the actual language of the First Amendment. For me any debates about the constitutionality must incorporate the actual words which state, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Regardless of whether Thomas Jefferson may have used the words “separation of church and state” in a letter, there is a reason why the framers of the Bill of Rights chose the final words they did; and there is a reason why many try instead to use a different phrase when making arguments. In this post, however, I mainly stayed with the phrase “separation of church and state” in order to contrast theology with common vernacular.
I would love to hear from you. Please tell me what you honestly think in the comments section below!