The Wall of Separation

Walter Shurden, in the classic Baptist primer “Four Fragile Freedoms, ” said that “Christians have to work hard at distinguishing between pietism and patriotism, assessing critically where one begins and the other ends. When the cross of Jesus is wrapped in the flag of any nation, danger, if not downright heresy, is close by” (52).

I do my best to keep a nice yard. I don’t want to be OCD about it, but it is a source of pride and one of the few things that I can do and look back at say that it’s finished (at least for a while). As I was mowing the backyard the other day, I noticed that there were weeds and grass poking through the fence. It was coming from my neighbor’s yard. The fence is not close to his house nor is he within the subdivision itself, so it is “out of sight and out of mind.” I’ve had to continually monitor that fence in an attempt to keep what is on his side of the fence from coming over to mine. It’s an ongoing effort.

This kind of struggle with weeds between two lawns is a good analogy for what is taking place in our nation. But, it certainly isn’t the first time and probably won’t be the last. With the July 4th celebration on the horizon, it’s a good opportunity to reflect upon our freedoms and liberties as American citizens but more importantly as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

The relationship between church and state is an important one. Perhaps the most pivotal biblical passage comes from Matthew 22:15-22. The Pharisees and Herodians, religious and political parties of the time, came together with the intention of tricking Jesus with the question “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Ceasar or not?” I find it insightful that the Pharisees were patriots of their nation and hated paying taxes, whereas the Herodians appreciated the status quo and supported the government. These two groups despised one another yet agreed that taxes was a pivotal issue. At least they could agree upon that. Ordinarily they wouldn’t have anything to do with each other. However, there was one thing they both despised more than the other, and that was Jesus. If Jesus said “yes pay your taxes” then he would have been labeled a traitor. If he would have said, “no don’t pay taxes” he would have been accused of treason against the government. It was a clever ploy.

George W. Truett, once pastor of FBC Dallas, preached a famous sermon on the steps of the National Capitol Building in May 1920. He said that Jesus’ words about rendering to Ceasar things that were Ceasar’s, and things that are God’s to God were “one of the most revolutionary and history making utterances that ever fell from those lips divine. That utterance, once for all, marked divorcement of the church and state.” Jesus’ remarkable words have been utilized by Baptists in the development of a “separation” between government and the church.

Baptists have been at the forefront of the separation ideal. The phrase “separation of church and state” was not commonly used when the Constitution and Bill of RIghts was written. The concept was there, however. The “wall of separation” origins can be linked to 17th Century Baptist Roger Williams and later attributed to Thomas Jefferson. He wrote a letter to the Danbury Connecticut Baptist Association, indicating that he believed the 1st amendment erected a wall of separation between the church and state. It has been used by the Supreme Court as well.

We are going to continue to have skirmishes relating to the separation concept, and both the establishment and free exercise clauses will come into play.

County clerks are refusing to grant marriage licenses to gay couples out of religious convictions. I haven’t heard any clerks refusing to grant licenses to persons who have been divorced multiple times out of religious conviction though. The Bible does record God’s view on the subject “I hate divorce” and Jesus’ words “what God has joined together, let no one separate.” So, is this a religious liberty issue or an act of discrimination? What is our posture relating to Romans 13 giving deference to the government? We can also cite Revelation 13 about opposing the government as well. Then we return to the words of Jesus in Matthew 22.

We’ve been here before. Until 1920, women weren’t even allowed to vote. It wasn’t until 1954 (Brown v. Board of Education) that “separate but equal” was ruled unconstitutional and effectively ended segregation. It’s hard to imagine, but an owner of a restaurant could refuse service to an African-American and be within their rights to do so. Until 1967, interracial marriage was illegal in the United States. These couples could not be granted a marriage license, and I would envision there would be those who would have refused to grant them one based on their own views.

One of the more recent religious liberty cases relates to Bob Jones University. BJU banned interracial dating in the 1950s and did not admit a black student until the 1970s. They lost their tax exempt status in 1983 because the IRS ruled that their school policies violated federal law. BJU held these views because of their position and interpretation of the Bible. Interestingly, BJU dropped their ban on interracial dating in 2000.

The Supreme Court has ruled on marriage equality. The next area for debate will be that of religious liberty. Churches and their ministers have concerns over the implications of this ruling, but I believe the more significant areas will be relating to institutions who have certain convictions based upon their religious views. Time will tell how this turns out.

Not everyone is supportive of the concept of “separation of church and state.” Opponents lament the nation’s declining morals and say the only way to get back to God is to do away with it. I’m reminded of what Jesus decided to do when confronted with a similar temptation.

After his baptism, he went out into the wilderness to endure a series of temptations which would essentially answer the question “What kind of Messiah are you going to be?”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give to you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’” (Matthew 4.8-10 NIV).

Jesus could have chosen to use earthly power, politics, and position to implement his mission. He could have chosen to “get things done” through natural means, but instead his response was to tell Satan to get away from him.

Religious liberty is a precious right and we need to do our best to fight for it. We need to learn from our history and view our Bible and culture through the lens of what Jesus taught and how he lived. Let us be consistent in the interpretation and application of Scripture, while remembering that  “this world is not my home.”

In the meantime, I’m going to continue keeping an eye on that fence.

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