Understanding the Wall, Part 1: What Christians need to know about the Separation of Church & State


“Reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” – George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796

I don’t usually find myself in agreement with the Americans United for a Separation of Church and State, considering that we tend to disagree about everything from how we interpret the Constitution to whether tomatoes are fruits or vegetables. So I was surprised when I read an angry article by Jeremy Leaming blasting the Religious Right and found a glimmer of truth. Leaming wrote, “[Washington] thought religion was important as a source of public and private virtue, but that doesn’t mean he wanted the government to force it on anyone.” How can I say that I agree with Jeremy Leaming and not lose my job with PFI? The answer lies in the fact that there is a profound distinction between a separation of Church and State and a separation of Religion and Government.

Most Americans, Christians and secularists alike, use these phrases interchangeably. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, alluding to Thomas Jefferson’s infamous “wall of separation between Church and State,” spoke of “the wall that was designed to separate religion and government” (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris). But are these concepts the same? I would argue that the Founders did in fact desire to create a wall of separation between the institution of the Church and the institution of the State. The prevention of Church control of the state as well as state involvement in the Church is essential for preserving individuals’ religious liberty and Church autonomy. Scripture itself gives very specific and different roles to the Church (Ephesians 4) and to the State (Romans 13), and neither is equipped to fulfill the others roles. The State should not assume the responsibility of winning souls, as in the state-controlled Church of England from which the Pilgrims fled, nor can the Church claim the power of “the sword,” as occurred during the Spanish Inquisition.

However, the Founders never wanted or anticipated this institutional independence to turn into a mutual exclusion. Unlike the separation of Church and State, the separation of Religion and Government not only restricts the free exercise of religion, it establishes the secular worldview in the public arena.

It is essential to understand the difference between these two “separations.” What we truly desire is the ability to bring our principles and values to the public sector, to be salt and light in ALL aspects of our society, public as well as private. So while we never want the institutions of Church and State to be integrated, we must continue to struggle against a separation of Religion and Government. Understanding this distinction will enable us to dispel the secular world’s false perceptions of Christians and allow us to build common ground so that our labor in this debate will bear more fruit.

3 Responses to “Understanding the Wall, Part 1: What Christians need to know about the Separation of Church & State”

  1. Derek Kruse Says:

    While I am not certain if such semantics will ultimately find widespread acceptance, the fundamental distinction is a valid one. Mr. Feister speaks wisely on the matter and, I believe, in accordance with the true intention of church/state separation.

  2. Doug Indeap Says:

    The establishment clause of the First Amendment prohibits Congress (and, through the 14th Amendment, the states) from passing any law respecting establishment of religion. The phrase “separation of church and state” is but a metaphorical description of that clause.

    How, then, do you derive the idea that the clause should be limited to separating church and state, but not religion and state? The clause itself speaks of religion, not church.

    Such a notion, by the way, raises a host of thorny questions that render doubtful whether or how this notion would work in the real world. How would you define religion and church in this context? How would you distinguish religion from church in this context? How would you distinguish whether or how a law supports or promotes religion, but does not support or promote church? Is it even possible for a law to support or promote religion without also supporting or promoting church? As the aim or raison d’etre of church is religion, isn’t support of the latter inherently support of the former?

  3. David Feister Says:

    Mr. Indeap, you raise some good points. As you know the First Amendment does not speak of simply “religion” but “an establishment of religion.” The state establishment of religion is wrong because the government is usurping the role of the church, as well as infringing on the rights of others to freely exercise their religion.

    But the laws that I am talking about when I speak of an integration of Religion and Government are not laws respecting an establishment of religion (such as a religious test for holding office, or an anti-blasphemy law, or a law giving tax money to a religious denomination). Rather they are laws based on religious principles (for example, protecting unborn life and promoting the institution of marriage). I would argue that this embodies the practical difference between “Church” and “Religion” as it relates to the public arena.

    Therefore, when you pose the question, “How would you distinguish whether or how a law supports or promotes religion, but does not support or promote church,” I would say that this is the wrong question to ask. We should question instead whether the government has assumed a responsibility that distinctly belongs to the Church, or vice versa. We as Christians should always promote Truth in the public arena wherever possible and rejoice when a law supports or upholds the Truth.

    I realize that this is not a complete answer, but I invite you to read Part 2 of my blog post, which may help to clarify my thoughts concerning the integration of Religion and Government.

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