Posts Tagged ‘Separation of Church and State’

This blog has been lurking around in the corners of my mind for quite a while now, ever since July 1, 2016 when I passed a church bulletin calling for all to come to its celebration of God and America. This sign bothered me for several reasons.  Of course, me being an atheist will probably cause most to figure out some of the reasons it bothered me. But only some. As for the rest, well, the rest I thought would be surprising and I hope interesting.

It bothered me because not only is such a mingling of church and state bad for the state, but it is just as bad for the church.


Let me first say that this church, and the many others that I saw with a similar message, have every right to do so.  However, not everything that is legal and that people have a right to do is also wise. And in this blog I plan to discuss why it is not wise for a religion, in this case Christianity, to mix religion and nationalism. To do so, I will speak as if I were a much younger me, young enough to still be a Christian.

Let’s start with a question – what is the purpose of the Church?

Answer, to spread the good news of the Gospels, the news about Jesus and his redemptive death and resurrection.  The church was also meant to provide support and teaching to fellow Christians, and to those who come to its doors seeking. And the church was also meant to serve as a moral guide and conscience of people, of societies, of nations, of the world.

While spreading the news of the Gospels might be easier done when part of a government, as part of the inside group, it does so at the expense of corrupting the church, and of causing great pain and suffering to others outside of that church.

A church is not the state.  Nor is it meant to be.  It is not meant to be a supporter of the state, an auxiliary of the state, a co-ruler with the state.

A church is meant to be an outsider in regards to government.

Christianity was born an outsider.

Jesus was born an outsider with Mary being pregnant before being married

Jesus was born into and preached to a people who were outsiders, the Jews.

Jesus served the outsiders among the Jews; tax collectors, the lepers, the unclean, the sinners.

An outsider preaching to a people of outsiders, that is part of what gave Jesus’ message its power.   His message was not to the rich and powerful, although it was theirs for the taking should they choose to listen.  His message was to the poor and powerless.

His message was not how to create a civil society, how to govern a country or state or city.  His message was about God’s love for humanity and how best to receive and spread that love.  It was a message of hope, not political positions.

Jesus, as the outsider, accepted all, but did not change his message, his standards, nor himself for any.

Jesus changed the world.

From its birth to its early years, Christianity was a religion off outsiders looking in.  Often ridiculed, sometimes persecuted, they nonetheless still for the most part, held firm to their standards and beliefs.  And they grew.

And then came the great split. No, not the Catholic and the Protestant split. Nor the disagreements among Christians, which had been present since the beginning as can be seen in the arguments about the nature of Jesus and his relation to God.

No, the great split I am referring to concerns the split from being outsiders to becoming insiders. The conversion of Emperor Constantine transformed Christianity from being a religion of outsiders to being a religion of the insiders, of those with power and money. Or rather, one particular set of Christians became insiders.  As part of the bargain, with Constantine, they had to have a uniform set of beliefs.  So, one set modified some of their beliefs and won, the others became persecuted and died, along with the pagans.

As Paul Johnson wrote in his A History of Christianity:

How could the Christian Church, apparently quite willingly, accommodate this weird megalomaniac in its theocratic system? Was there a conscious bargain? Which side benefited most from this unseemly marriage between Church and State? Or, to put it another way, did the empire surrender to Christianity, or did Christianity prostitute itself to the empire?”

Now, instead of criticizing the government and society, Christianity and the government tyndale-martyrdom-resized-600were one, and actions against the government were also actions against Christianity, and actions against Christianity were also actions against the government.  Given this, how could most Christians criticize any government action, no matter how bad or how flawed?  How could any government allow any deviation from the established religion, no matter how well argued and supported?

They couldn’t

An attack on the religion supported by the state was an attack on the state, and an attack vc006367on the state was an attack on the religion.  Such was the root cause of most of the religious violence and persecution throughout the years; the Inquisition, the forced conversion and persecution of the Jews, Catholics vs. Protestants, Protestants vs. Puritans, Puritans vs. Quakers, and on and on and on.

In addition to the violence against people, was the violence done to beliefs and morals as Churches assumed stately power. Compromises with principles and beliefs were common, as were the flat out ignoring of such principles and beliefs.

This violence against people and against the teachings of Jesus and of God is probably why the first person to propose an absolute and total separation of church and state was a Puritan theologian and the founder of the Baptist Church in America – Roger Williams. And he lived up to that ideal when he founded the state of Rhode Island.

The United States was the first secular government in the world. Something that the writers of the Constitution did intentionally, and with great forethought.


Their foresight and awareness of history is something lacking today by too many Americans, and is evidenced by so much more than just the signs I saw that inspired this blog.  This lack of forethought and awareness is seen whenever anyone:

  • Claims that the United States is a Christian country. And then advocates for laws to make it so – prayer in the schools, recognition of the Bible as the state book, etc.
  • Work to limit or take away the rights of those who are not the right sort of Christian or believer.
  • Tells Muslims to go home, even those who were born in the United States. And then tries to make it so.
  • Whenever permits are denied to religious groups due to their beliefs.
  • When President H. Bush commented that atheist could not be patriots due to not believing in God.
  • When Trump sends out a White House bulletin in which he states “America is a Nation of believers. As long as we have faith in each other, and trust in God, we will succeed!”

We, as a nation, as a people, have never been very good at remembering. But, today, that


lack of memory, of awareness, seems stronger than ever.  The evangelical support forTrump shows how far too many Christians and Christian organizations, are willing to go in dealing with the devil in order to gain political power.  And how many of their values and morals, and how much of the teachings of Jesus they are willing to ignore or give up in their quest for political power.


I think that they need to go back and read the history of religion, and of what happens when it becomes part of the state.  Some Madison, or Jefferson, or several others would be good.  But, perhaps, it would be best if they rediscovered the writings and thought of Roger Williams.  Before they manage to harm not just people, but the Constitution that will allow such harm to, eventually, be redressed.




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Republican presidential candidate Gingrich speaks at a meet and greet at the Willow Ridge Golf Course in Fort Dodge,

“We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background and if they believe in sharia they should be deported


“Look, the first step is you have to ask them the questions. The second step is you have to monitor what they’re doing on the internet. The third step is — let me be very clear — you have to monitor the mosques. I mean, if you’re not prepared to monitor the mosques, this whole thing is a joke.” Gingrich on Fox News’ Sean Hannity.



“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on,” campaign press release


“Do you think we might need to register Muslims in some type of database, or note their religion on their ID?” Yahoo Reporter

“We’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely. We’re going to have to look at the mosques. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully.” Donald Trump response


“Should there be a database or system that tracks Muslims in this country?”  MSNBC reporter

“There should be a lot of systems. Beyond databases. I mean, we should have a lot of systems.”  Donald Trump response.


And with these statements both Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump have stabbed with intent to kill that which both have professed to love and protect – the Constitution

religion 3

 “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States..” Article 6  United States Constitution

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”  First Amendment, United States Constitution


An integral part of being an American is being able to live your life in accordance with the dictates of your conscience and religion.

For those Jews so inclined there are rabbinical courts.  For those Catholics so inclined there are diocesan tribunals.   For other religious groups both Christian and not, there are organizations that, for  those so inclined, will resolve marital issues, individual disputes, business disputes, rule on inheritances, and more – all based on the precepts of that religion.

All of this is allowed by the free exercise clause as long  as they meet the following standards:

  • Participation is voluntary on the part of everyone.
  • What is decided does not violate US laws.
  • What is decided does not violate the US Constitution.

This is part of what being free to live in accordance with your conscience and religion means.  It applies not to just a few, not just to some, not just to most, but it applies to all Americans.

But Gingrich, Trump, and too many others wish to deny this Constitutional right to our Muslim citizens.  They would say to these Americans,

“No, you cannot follow your religious laws under the same guidelines as others follow theirs.  In fact, you are not allowed to follow them at all.  And yes, we are instituting a religious test on who is considered a full and good citizen of the United States.

And yes, although we may deny it, in doing so we are destroying that  which we profess to love and swore to protect.

And yes, by doing so we show that our true love is to the United States as a nation first and its ideals only a distant second.  And preferably a nation of Christians with a few Jews tossed in.”


Oh, what joy this must give our enemies who have charged us with hypocrisy, to have their once lies now made true.

Oh, what pain it gives seeing too many of our leaders recommending suicide as a way to protect our nation.

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Words. I am amazed at how many people seem to believe that words mean something apart from how we interpret them. Yes, sometimes the interpretation is easy. Most often though, especially with those words whose groupings are considered to be among the most important, they are not.

Power of Words

Two recent claims of a belief in a literal view of words was brought to my attention recently. Or rebrought rather since I was already aware of them. And both dealt with the U.S. Constitution.

The first dealt with the 2nd Amendment and its use of the word “infringe”. As in “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

This person had posted the dictionary definition of infringed in an attempt to show that our Constitution is against any sort of gun control and that all laws regulating the purchase of firearms is an attack on one of our most fundamental rights. Now, I don’t remember exactly which dictionary this person used, but its definition was similar to if not exactly like this one from the Merriam Webster dictionary.

“to wrongly limit or restrict (something, such as another person’s rights)”

Of course, this person was focused on the words “limit or restrict” and interpreted “wrongly” as meaning all attempts to limit or restrict. However, I had a different take on this definition. Mine, and I believe most people’s, interpretation would be that “wrong” described a type of attempt, not that all attempts at limiting or restricting are wrong. In other words instead of any attempt then, wrongly means that some attempts are wrong but also strongly implies that there are also correct ways to limit or restrict.

I also pointed out to this person that they were ignoring the first part of the amendment, “well regulated”. Words when used in sentences or any other larger grouping cannot be understood fully in isolation Those other words can and usually do change or modify their meanings.
In this case, the dictionary definition supports the idea that there are ways to correctly “limit or restrict” this right, and when added to the words “well regulated”, then gun control laws are not unconstitutional. Some can be, others are not. This is recognized even in the recent Supreme Court case, McDonald v Chicago, that recognized an individual right to own a gun.
The other words under dispute was the phrase “separation of church and state”. As is usual for so many extreme conservatives, they like to point out that this phrase is not in the constitution. They then point out that what is in the Constitution instead is “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Words known as the establishment clause.

And they are quite right about this. However, where they go wrong is in claiming that the establishment clause of the Constitution has a plain and literal meaning at odds with that of the phrase separation of church and state. They act as if the establishment clause needs no interpretation. And to add to the fun, they then often then go on to interpret it as meaning to establish a state church and nothing more.

To cap it all off, their interpretation flies in the face of how the word establishment was used during the time of the writing of the Constitution.

It ignores the fact that the man most responsible for writing the establishment clause and getting it passed, James Madison, also used this phrase of Thomas Jefferson to describe the intent of this clause.

They also ignore the history of the ratification of the Constitution and how, although its writers and promoters were justifiably gravely concerned about it being ratified, they did not respond to the many criticisms hurled their way that the Constitution did not contain a reference to Christianity or Jesus or even to just God.

They further ignore the historical fact that even after its ratification attempts were made to correct this supposed deficiency, attempts which were always defeated both during the time immediately after the Constitution and for all the years afterwards – during President Andrew Jackson’s presidency, during President Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and on into the 20th century.

So, in their attempt to say that it does not need to be interpreted, they interpret it in a way at odds with the writer of those words and with history. Seems to me that their view is more the result of their ideology than any sort of reality. Or laziness. After all, it is much easier to look at a word, put your interpretation to it, pretend it is THE literal meaning of the word, and then be happy that it confirms your own biases and prejudices. Look at how much easier that process is than the one I used in the last paragraph above, wherein I had to find out how the word establishment was used in regards to religion at that time, at who wrote those words and how he described the meaning of what he wrote, and at the history of the Constitution.

Of course, the greatest argument against this idea of a literal reading is the fact that those who claim to believe in such so often disagree on what those words mean when applied to life and when enacted in the world. This is true whether the words in question are those of the Constitution, the Bible, the Qur’an, or any other set of words.

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I thought I would try something a bit different in my blog today. Usually I pronounce my words of wisdom for all who have the wit to understand to receive and be enlightened. Today though I am going to post an observation of mine in regards to religion and various social issues. And then, instead of expounding on the reasons why this observation is true – since I have only the vaguest of ideas on why – I am hoping those who read it will provide some of their own thoughts.

Atheists have a strong tendency to point out all the problems and flaws with different religions and argue that they have held up needed social change. As a result, they usually only see the obstructionist role religion has played in needed social change and overlook the other side.

Religious people though often go the other way and emphasize the positive while downplaying the negative.

My own personal view is that religion has been both positive and negative, has fought against social progress and needed cultural change (not surprising since one of the roles of a religion is to foster and support the current society as a sort of glue) but has also often been the sharp end of the stick in regards to creating and promoting social progress and needed cultural change. For example:

  • – Much is made of how religion controlled the state in times past (although often it was the other way around, and even more often both controlling the other in a partnership). However, religion also had a leading role in the development and promotion of the idea and reality of separation of church and state and is a vital component of our current secular government and societies. I detailed a part of this history in my blog “The Religious Root Leading to the Separation of Church and State”.
  • – The church and religion have a long history of providing aide to the poor and sick. The development of hospitals came from our religious history, for example. This link and this one provide some information on this.
  • – The abolition of slavery was led by Christians and churches. As was the Civil Rights movement. And Christian beliefs morphed in such a way that they provided not only comfort to the slaves in the years before the Civil War, but also caused them to fight back in various ways against their oppressors. For example, whenever a religious revival swept through an area there would be more slave unrest and uprisings.

There are other areas where religions also led the way in providing much needed progress and change – including science.

However, in one very recent movement, and one relatively recent movement, instead of seeing this dichotomy in the role of religion, I have seen much more uniformity in religion opposing both movements. These movements are the feminist movement and the gay rights movements. The church and religion have not played as prominent a role in the promotion of either of these two human rights movements as they have in past ones. Yes, some individual religious people and churches have supported these causes, but they are even more of an exception (until recently) than were the churches that supported past progressive movements.

And I don’t fully know why this difference exists between these causes and those of the past.

So, rather than speculate and research further, I will instead let those readers who wish to comment on this. Consider it my lazy way to do research on this topic.

Now, there is no pressure to respond. After all, even if no one responds what am I going to do? Send hit men out? Refuse to let ungrateful and lazy readers read this blob by sending it only to myself from henceforth?

Instead, I will probably whine to my wife and sulk a bit. Perhaps have a good cry at the realization that I am not as popular and thought provoking as I had believed myself to be.

Now, respond!


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Part of the problem in looking at any Supreme Court ruling, or, indeed, any government action is the tendency for people to look at each one as an end point instead of part of an on-going dialogue or journey.  There always has been, is, and always will be a back and forth between different views and arguments as culture and society changes, as legal thought changes, and as new arguments and ideas are brought forth.


It is also not given to any one side to win every time.  Not in war, not in government, not in judicial rulings, not in life. The Town of Greece v. Galloway decision, that Greece’s town council opening their sessions with sectarian prayer is constitutional is one of those ebb times when what I consider the wrong arguments and side won. It happens. The question now becomes is how bad a defeat is this decision?

My view is that it will have an impact, as all Supreme Court decisions do.  However, it will not be a major one; no old rulings were overturned and the basic idea that it is possible for town councils to go too far in their opening prayers still exists, even if the majority did not feel, for whatever reason, that Greece’s did not cross the line.

The majority based their ruling two arguments. The first is that if only nonsectarian prayers were allowed, then the government would wind up in the business of deciding which prayers were nonsectarian and which were too sectarian. Something that arguably should not be within the power of the government to decide.

Coupled with this argument is the decision in a 1983 Supreme Court case, March v. Chambers.  6_Supreme_Court_2010In this case the court ruled that Nebraska could begin its legislative sessions with a prayer from a state chaplain, citing historical precedent going back to the First Continental Congress. An important caveat in Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion though is that such sectarian prayers “over time is not ‘exploited to proselytize or advance any one or disparage any other, faith or belief.’”

The majority in this case decided Greece council prayers did not go over this line.  I would strongly disagree with them on this given that, except for a short period in 2008 when this case first started and they invited a few non-Christians to lead the prayers, the prayers had always been heavily Christian.

However, no matter how wrong they may have been about this specific situation, the general principle still holds and has not been repudiated.

Let me also state that I found the dissenters opinions much more forceful than that of the majority.  Justice Kagan in her dissent agreed with the1983 Marsh decision but instead argued that this case was more one of religious plurality than of prayer: “Greece’s Board did nothing to recognize religious diversity:  In arranging for clergy members to open each meeting, the Town never sought (except briefly when this suit was filed) to involve, accommodate, or in any way reach out to adherents of non-Christian religions, A public meeting that begins with explicitly religious prayer aimed at ordinary citizens does not square with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government.”

I also found it interesting that the majority did not consider the differences between how prayers are delivered within the Nebraska legislature and how they are done in small towns such as Greece, New York.  When the clergy deliver prayers within the Nebraska legislature it is to the whole assembly of elected representatives.  In the Greece town council the clergy delivers the prayer to the town residents with the board members sitting on high and watching.  That is not to even mention that the sectarian nature of the prayers is much greater in Greece than in the Nebraska legislature, nor the fact that those who do not pray  are visible and their business could well be on the agenda for the council to consider.

As I said, a defeat. But not a disaster. It will cause problems, but not catastrophes.


Let me close this by noting one thing I found of interest. All three non-Christian justices ReligiousLibertydissented from this ruling. Only one of the Christian judges did. To me this is just another indicator that the concerns of many of our founders on the rights of the majority being used to suppress the equally protected rights of the minority were valid.  Those that have the power of the majority on their side are often as unaware of this as a fish is of the ocean it swims in. However, those who are not fish and are trying to survive in its waters are very much aware.



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The creation of the idea of separation of church and state, arguably one of the most important innovations in government, has many roots.   Most people tend to know only of the secular root.  However there is also a religious root to this idea, a root that goes as deep if not deeper into time than does the secular, and which actually came to full fruition before the secular one did.


Most people, both religious and secular, are surprised upon finding this out.  I know I was when I found out.   However, upon a little reflection, what is really surprising is that Americans are surprised that Christian thought can lead to the separation of church and state, since most Americans are also already aware of one of the primary Biblical arguments for the separation of church and state.

 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

Matthew 22:17 – 21

Although I quoted from Matthew, the same story appears in Mark and Luke also. So, within the Gospels, from the mouth of Jesus, there is already Biblical support for the idea that there are two separate spheres – the church and the state.    However, within the Bible, these verses are not the only ones cited for support of this idea of two separate spheres – or domains, kingdoms, swords, or a host of other terms for this idea.   The Old Testament was also often cited as support for this idea.

For example, Exodus 18: 13-26 and Exodus 28:1 are cited as showing that the position of civil magistrate and that of priest are created separately, demonstrating, again, the existence of two separate domains.   Jehoshaphat, the righteous king of Judah, is another example that was often cited.  In 2 Chronicles 19:11 Jehoshaphat appointed one man to administer to matters “concerning the LORD” and another man to matters “concerning the king”.

11 “Amariah the chief priest will be over you in any matter concerning the Lord, and Zebadiah son of Ishmael, the leader of the tribe of Judah, will be over you in any matter concerning the king, and the Levites will serve as officials before you. Act with courage, and may the Lord be with those who do well.”

Several other verses and examples were also used to support the idea that there are two different domains, one of civil government and one of the church.

Now, let me state here, that this is not separation of church and state yet.   However, it is the beginnings of it.   It is a recognition that the church does not control all and that the civil government does not control all – each has their own domain.   Without this basic concept there can be no separation of church and state.

And lest you wonder if this is a reading backwards from today’s views about church and state and imposing those views to the past, this doctrine of separate spheres of authority was introduced by Saint Augustine (354 – 430 CE) in his book City of God.   From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

A distinction between Church and State—more exactly, between the priesthood and the power of the emperor, each independent in its own sphere, though the priesthood has the higher function. The classic place for this doctrine is the canon Duo sunt. Another canon, Cum ad verum, gave reasons for the separation: mutual limitation of their powers would restrain the pride of priest and emperor, and those on God’s service (the clergy) should be kept free of worldly entanglements. This was also the force of the canons Sicut enim and Te quidem.

Just as a quick aside for those who do not think religion had anything to do with modern rights and freedoms, you might like to read more of this link than just the part I quoted.   Augustine also argues that the source of political power lies in the people who have then entrusted this power to kings and emperors.  Further he advances an argument for the natural rights of all men as well as a belief that all men are equal and because of this slavery was contrary to natural law.   Both ideas sound strikingly familiar to what later, secular, enlightenment philosophers would argue.

Getting back to the separation of church and state now, these ideas and arguments of Augustine were then developed by Pope Gelasius (Pope from 492 – 496 CE) into an explicit political statement.

“Writing to Anastasius, emperor in the east, Gelasisu stated, ‘There are, then, august Emperor, two powers by which the world is chiefly ruled, the sacred power of the prelates and the royal power. ‘”

Spheres of Sovereignty by Robert Joseph Renaud and Lael Daniel Weinberger in the Northern Kentucky Law Review.

So, the theory of two separate spheres has existed since very early in church history.  Theoretically these should be co-equal, each having total and complete dominion over their area.     However, as is usual, theory tends to get bent and broken upon meeting reality.  The reality is that there were times 800px-Schlacht_am_Weißen_Berg_C-K_063when the church was dominant and ruled over civil matters.  There were other times when the state was dominant and ruled on church matters.  This varied dependent on various political and social factors.

In fact, in the 11th century Pope Gregory VII morphed this doctrine into one of papal supremacy.   Pope Innocent III followed up by adding what had formerly been one of the emperor’s titles to his own, that of “Vicarius Dei”.   Pope Boniface VII openly declared that both spiritual and temporal power were under the pope, with temporal only being on loan, so to speak, from the pope.   In other words, while they were two separate spheres, the spiritual reigned over the civil, which was a modification of what had been originally understood.

It will probably surprise many to find that the Protestant Reformers also made this distinction between the two spheres.   John Calvin for one, despite his reputation and his actions in Geneva, believed in the separate jurisdictions of church and state.

“Calvin believed in an independent church supported and reinforced by a godly civil magistrate.   In this we see hints of a blending of roles, where church and state cooperate to maintain purity.   This is what most observers think of first when they think of Calvin’s contributions to church-state relations.   But what is often missed is that even when Calvin speaks of the cooperation of church and state, eh does not speak of the subordination of one to the other.   Calvin believed that the church and state coexisted as two forms of government separated from one another by God, but both under God and subject to his law-word….An example given in the Institutes illustrates what Calvin meant by this:

Does any one get intoxicated.   In a well ordered city his punishment will be imprisonment.   Has he committed whoredom?  The punishment will be…more severe.  Thus satisfaction will be given to the [civil] laws, the magistrates, and the external tribunal.   But the consequence will be, that the offender will give no signs of repentance, but will rather fret and murmur.   Will the Church not here interfere?

Spheres of Sovereignty by Robert Joseph Renaud and Lael Daniel Weinberger in the Northern Kentucky Law Review.

Here is another quote from Calvin about the relationship between church and state, again from Institutes:

Some…are led astray, by not observing the distinction and dissimilarity between ecclesiastical and civil power.   For the Church has not the right of the sword to punish or restrain, has no power to coerce, no prison nor other punishments which the magistrate is wont to inflict.  Then the object in view is not to punish the sinner against his will, but to obtain a profession of penitence by voluntary chastisement.   The two things, the fore, are widely different because neither does the Church assume anything to herself which is proper to the magistrate, nor is the magistrate competent to what is done by the Church.

Although not exactly the same, Luther’s views of church and state paralleled that of Calvin; Luther saw two realms, the church and state, both under God but each being institutional equals.  James Madison, one of the principle creators of our Constitution, the creator of our Bill of Rights, and one of the staunchest proponents of church/state separation, acknowledged that this idea of the two being separated came from religious sources first.   In a letter to F. L. Schaeffer dated Dec 3rd, 1821, Madison writes that, “It illustrates the excellence of a system which, by a due distinction, to which the genius and courage of Luther led the way,  between what is due to Caesar and what is due to God, best promotes the discharge of both obligations.”

Although Madison does not say so, I believe that he is referring to Martin Luther’s book On Secular Authority. From this work:

God has ordained the two governments: the spiritual, which by the Holy Spirit under Christ makes Christians and pious people; and the secular, which restrains the unchristian and wicked so that they are obliged to keep the peace outwardly…The laws of worldly government extend no farther than to life and property and what is external upon earth. For over the soul God can and will let no one rule but himself. Therefore, where temporal power presumes to prescribe laws for the soul, it encroaches upon God’s government and only misleads and destroys souls. We desire to make this so clear that every one shall grasp it, and that the princes and bishops may see what fools they are when they seek to coerce the people with their laws and commandments into believing one thing or another.

And later in the book,

We are to be subject to governmental power and do what it bids, as long as it does not bind our conscience but legislates only concerning outward matters…But if it invades the spiritual domain and constrains the conscience, over which God only must preside and rule, we should not obey it at all but rather lose our necks. Temporal authority and government extend no further than to matters which are external and corporeal.

Surprisingly modern in its ideals about separation of church and state, however, this is still not there yet.  That is because for the great majority, the church still has control over doctrine and what people should and should not believe.  While believing that the state should have no power to determine and enforce religious belief, most did believe that the church had this power and that, as the guardian of men’s souls, had a responsibility to do so.

Further, many of the sects and denominations had no problem integrating the two domains; others could not resist the lure of having the state support the church.   Nor could the state resist using the church in this way.  So, the elements were in place for a modern understanding of the separation of church and state, it only needed someone to put it together and add the individual’s right to determine his own spiritual belief, without coercion from either church or state.

Now, there were many who started to piece this together and started to promote an ideal of separation that more closely approached our own.   But in the interest of keeping this from getting too long, let me jump to the fruition of religious thought on separation of church and state, the writings and actions of Roger Williams.

Religious Argument for Separation of Church and State 

Roger Williams, in his book The Bloody Tenet of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience, was the first person, either secular or religious, to forcefully argue for the total separation of church from state.  Being a roger-williams-2Protestant Theologian, a Puritan, and the founder of the Baptist church in America (although he did not stay a Baptist for long), his arguments were, of course, religious; building on all the elements I mentioned above, from the Bible and the works of such men as Luther and Calvin.   What is even more important, he did not just talk the talk, but he walked the talk too. To all of this he also added in his own critical look at both the current state of affairs and recent history.

Williams was also the founder of Rhode Island, and he managed to convince King Charles to let him set it up along his principles as set out in The Bloody Tenet.  Rhode Island thus had the first government in which state and government were fully separated; a much more thorough separation than ours is today.  And this was well before a similar secular case was made for the separation of church and state.  Williams founded Rhode Island in 1636.  The Bloody Tenet was published in 1644.   John Locke, widely considered the chief proponent of the secular argument for the separation of church and state, was born in 1632.   In fact, John Locke was influenced by the religious arguments for the separation of church and state, either directly through Williams or indirectly through John Milton, who knew Williams and was much influenced by him.

Williams agreed with Augustine, Calvin, Luther and the others that the civil magistrate had no power and jurisdiction on matters of faith, belief and the church.  Where Williams disagreed with most of his fellow Christians though, is that he extended this to the church, parting company with them on the power of the church over individual beliefs, the power or the church to enforce doctrine and beliefs, and over the link between the state in supporting one religion over another.  He believed that the church, far from being an instrument of God was a creation of man, and thus flawed.    After all, there is plenty of Biblical support for this – view the Bible’s condemnation of the religious institutions of their times in both the Old and New Testament, how they all fall short – as well as historical support in the form of religious wars, religious persecution, and competing doctrines.

From an article on the Smithsonian site:   

Williams’ main purpose was to prove, “It is the will and command of God that, since the coming of his Sonne the Lord Jesus, a permission of the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or Antichristian consciences and worships, bee granted to all men in all Nations and Countries.” Over hundreds of pages he lays out his case, expanding upon his view that the state will inevitably corrupt the church, rebutting Scriptural arguments for intolerance with Scriptural arguments for tolerance.

Then he countered the almost universally held view that governments received their authority from God, and that in the material world God favored those who were godly and punished those who were not. If it were that simple, then why did He subject Job to such an ordeal? And Williams noted that at that very moment in European conflicts, Catholics had “victory and dominion.” If “successe be the measure,” then the evidence proved that God had chosen Catholics over Protestants.

What caused Williams to make this next step was his understanding of his religion, both of the Bible and theology, and his critical examination of the world he lived in.   At that time religious wars and persecutions were common, and often bloody.   Williams had himself been persecuted for his beliefs, both in England and in America.  There were numerous varieties of Christianity, all claiming to be doing by Jan Luyken what God wills.   Given that this was not possible, then there was something wrong with the idea that the Church had been entrusted by God to keep men from straying.   Roger Williams identified that wrongness by use of standard Christian theology.   Man was a sinful and fallen creature living in a sinful and fallen world.   That means that all of the institutions he created, both secular AND religious would be flawed and imperfect.

Further, one could never be certain of anyone else’s salvation other than one’s own.   God and God alone is the final judge.  Given the flawed nature of man, no man is going to be correct all the time, and their judgment on another’s soul could well be in error.   Given this, then best to let that be between the individual and God.  He believed that only individuals could be redeemed, not nations, not institutions, but individuals.  So there was no such thing as a Christian nation or Christian school, only Christian individuals.

Taking this even further, if one could never be certain about the state of another person’s soul, and if all persons and all human institutions are flawed, then should any institution try to force another to believe against their conscience?   What if the Puritan church were wrong and had forced people for all of its years of existence to believe wrongly.   Now, all of those souls damnation was their fault.  Far better to let each person choose to believe as they wished, to relegate all conversion attempts to words only and not to government strictures and force; “The civil sword may make a nation of hypocrites and anti-Christians, but not one Christian”.   In fact, this extends not only to those professing to be Christian but to all of humanity.   Jew, Muslim, Catholic, Quaker, Atheist…. all.

I would like to point out that Roger Williams separation of church and state was even more absolute than that of John Locke’s.   Locke would have limited the freedoms of conscience for Catholics and atheists (although he did later back of outlawing atheism).   Williams allowed all of whatever faith or of none to enjoy full civil and personal liberties.

Further, building upon the thoughts of Augustine (that I had earlier briefly alluded to) and other theologians about human rights and the source of political power, “I infer that the sovereign, original, and foundation of civil power lies in the people.” The governments they establish, he wrote, “have no more power, nor for no longer time, than the civil power or people consenting and agreeing shall betrust them with.”

So, far from being a purely secular ideal, the separation of church and state came first from religious thought, with the goal of preserving the integrity of both the church and of the individual believer, and then influenced the secular thinkers to argue the same, but from the view of the benefits such an ideal provided to the state, and also the individual.

While it is easily understandable why secularists today might have forgotten this history, being focused on the secular, Enlightenment thinkers who directly influenced the men creating the first nation with separation of church and state and ignoring those who came before them; but it is truly a shame that so many Christians have forgotten this important part of history too.    The separation of church and state is one of those areas where there are both good religious and good secular reasons for not only maintaining, but jealously guarding.  It is an institution that protects both the state and the church and, most importantly of all, the individual.

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All too often I see and hear atheists claim that organized religion has nothing to do with morality; that a person is good in spite of their religion.   They point out that morality is based on our own nature and not from religion; that our sense of sympathy and empathy as well as of fairness along with such things as our bonding behaviors, reciprocal altruism and other traits built into our species through our evolution into a highly social species are the true and apparently complete source of human morality.   I find it rather interesting that they seem to believe that morality can spring from our nature without help and without further fashioning, rather like Athena springing fully formed and ready for action from the forehead of Zeus.   For those who believe this, sorry, just as the Athena story is a myth, so too is this version of the source of our morality.  The social traits that underlie our morality are only the basic bricks of the structure.  And just like bricks need more than their mere existence to become a building so too do our evolutionary derived traits need more to become morals.

ApeMoralityFurther, in addition to our evolved social traits, we are also evolutionary inclined to cheat and be selfish, to look out only for ourselves.   This too is part of our nature.   It is our society and cultures that take these often conflicting impulses and vague traits and turn them into a system of ethics and morality that can sustain a society.  They do so through the use of different governmental and social institutions.   Organized religion is one of those societal institutions that helps bring this about and maintain it, and until fairly recently it was a necessary one.    To understand why let me make a slight digression into the formation of larger social groups, governments, and organized religion.

Many atheists seem to believe that organized religion and governments came into being separately with religion then casting its baleful and bitter influence on governments.   However this is not true.   Organized religion and governments came into being at the same time.   In fact, in the beginning, there was no separation; they were one entity.   The idea of separating religion and government is an idea that had to evolve along with the necessary institutions that would allow their separation.   Because of this organized religion cast no baleful influence but instead was a necessary part of government and society, without which we might not have ever formed groups larger than kinship groups.

Organized religion and large governments came into being as a result of the agricultural revolution around 10,000 years ago.   Until we discovered how to grow crops we were limited in size to family groups ranging in size from small family groups of just a very few members to tribes consisting of hundreds of individuals, For these smaller, family based groups, kinship ties and informal power structures worked well in making decisions for the group and in deciding how to allocate resources.

However with the coming of agriculture we found ourselves able to sustain much larger populations.  Instead of dealing with groups of just a few hundreds, all of whom are related in some way, we found ourselves creating societies with populations of many thousands who are made up of several different family groups.   The problem then became of what to do when conflicts arose between the different family groups making up a nascent large society?   If left up to kinship groups a larger society would dissolve into bitter feuds between these groups, or if they managed to hang together somehow despite these conflicts, they then become an easy target for those societies that had figured better ways to solve this problem.


Another issue involved in the transition from small family groups to larger multi-family groups involved the distribution of resources and organization of labor.  I am about to quote extensively from part of Jared Diamond’s book, “Guns, Germ, and Steel”, but before I do I wish to make one thing clear.  When Mr. Diamond refers to “kleptocracy” he is referring to any government in which resources are taken from the many and then concentrated in the few.  This act by itself has no moral value either good or bad; all governments both good and bad engage in this.  The good ones use those resources for the benefit of their society whereas the bad use it for their own personal benefit.  Do not let the usual negative associations of this word prevent you from understanding what is being said here.

As for the quote, from pages 277 – 278:

“Bands and tribes already had supernatural beliefs, just as do modern established religions.  But the supernatural beliefs of bands and tribes did not serve to justify central authority, justify transfer of wealth, or maintain peace between unrelated individuals.  When supernatural beliefs gained those functions and became institutionalized, they were thereby transformed into what we term a religion.  Hawaiian chiefs were typical of chiefs elsewhere, in asserting divinity, divine descent, or at least a hotline to the gods.  The chief claimed to serve the people by interceding for them with the gods and reciting the ritual formulas required to obtain rain, good harvests, and success in fishing.

Chiefdoms characteristically have an ideology, precursor to an institutionalized religion, that buttresses the chief’s authority.  The chief may either combine the offices of political leader and priest in a single person or may support a separate group of kleptocrats (that is, priests) whose function is to provide ideological justification for the chiefs.  That is why chiefs devote so much collected tribute to constructing temples and other public works, which serve as centers of the official religion and visible signs of the chief’s power.

Besides justifying the transfer of wealth to the kleptocrats, institutionalized religion brings two other important benefits to centralized societies.  First, shared ideology or religion helps solve the problem of how unrelated individuals are to live together without killing each other – by providing them with a bond not based on kinship.  Second, it gives people a motive, other than genetic self-interest, for sacrificing their lives on behalf of others.  At the cost of a few society members who die in battle as soldiers, the whole society becomes much more effective at conquering other societies or resisting attacks.”

I would add here that these changes in superstitious belief mentioned above were, for the most part, not done in cold blooded calculation.  Rather it was changes that made internal sense and flowed naturally from the beliefs and the society.  Those changes that worked stayed.  Those that did not were changed or forgotten.

I am going on at length about this in order to make the point that organized religion and government were inextricably linked 10,000 years ago, and for good reasons.   That since they were linked and if not exactly the same, then very close (many cultures of the time did not have separate words for government and religion) that meant that organized religion had the responsibility of doing much of what secular institutions do now.

For example, as part of their role in creating a new identity beyond that of the family was their role in teaching and maintaining the values and morals of their society.   Many see religion as nothing more than a set of theological beliefs linked to certain historical acts.   While this is to an extent true, it is very much not the whole picture.   Organized religion is also a social institution that fulfills a role in the maintenance and change of a given society.

In other words, organized religion reflects the society’s values, enforces them, and is the means of transmitting them to the next generation.   All of which is not only valuable but also a requirement for any society that is going to last longer than a few years.   And, again, until recently organized religion was instrumental in the formation and shaping of those societal values and morals in individuals with no viable alternative in existence.

They did this in many ways, one of the primary ones being through religious instruction and services.232a  That still remains the domain of organized religion today.   Teach the young and they will grow and become parents and then pass those values on to their children.  These values will also then be reinforced by religious services and communion with other believers.

Parents were and remain the main force in teaching and passing on morality.   Today the difference is that organized religion no longer has sole responsibility for the other ways in which morality is passed on in a society.  Secular alternatives that were not available in the past have evolved to take their place.   One of the most important of these is education.

Education is a method in which not only knowledge but also a society’s values are passed on and molded.  Until recently education of the masses used to be the sole responsibility of the church.   No other real organization was available to provide instruction about the world, and I am discussing not just the religious world but the natural and social world.   It was also churches that created the first universities with their gathering of different experts and expertise.  Until their secular form evolved, without organized religion there would have been on or little education.   Which, again, makes organized religion a prime creator of a society’s morality.

Organized religion also upheld the worth of a government (or the government the religion – given their mix it is often hard to say which is which) with its many laws regulating human behavior, which in turn shapes and molds morality.

Then there were the many other societal roles that organized religion that also helped maintain a given society’s morals and values – resolving conflicts at both the local and governmental levels, setting up and distributing charity, setting up of hospitals, establishing courts and dispensing justice, etc.

One common criticism I get at this point is that, yes organized religion filled these roles but they are not necessary for such and therefore unnecessary at all.   My answer to this – yes… and no.

In terms of being an absolute necessity, I would agree that organized religion is not an absolute necessity.   Obviously so since we have secular institutions filling those roles today.  However, organized religion was a historical necessity.

Let me use Columbus’s voyage of the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety two.   The ships that he sailed were caravels of different sizes with a crew of between 18 to 52.   Now, was it an absolute necessity that Columbus use these caravels to make his famous trip?   Of course not.   He could have, for example, used a 19th century Clipper ship instead.  In fact, had he used such a ship he would have crossed the Atlantic  in much faster time, more safely than he did in his three caravels, and would have had more men and cargo.   For that matter, he could have made the crossing using the QE 2 and been a great deal more comfortable.   There was no absolute necessity for him to use caravels in crossing, either one of the ones I just mentioned would have done just as well and in fact done a better job of crossing.   However, while there was no absolute necessity there was indeed a necessity involved, one of historical necessity.   Clippers and the QE 2 did not exist at the time of Columbus.  In fact, they had to evolve from the caravels of Columbus’ time.

So too with our modern secular institutions and outlook.   They did not exist in anything except the most basic, small, and nascent stage for the vast majority of our history.   Religious thought and organized religion did.   In fact, secular thinking and institutions grew largely from religious thought and institutions.   Organized religion was a historical necessity for our modern day.   And even today, with the rise of secularism, for many religion still plays a large role in protecting, shaping, and transmitting a society’s values and morals.   Today though it is not an exclusive role.

Let me now address one more aspect of the relationship between organized religion, society, and morality – it is not a simple one.   Indeed, it is a complicated and often contradictory relationship.

Many see organized religion as only being the defender of tradition, of being concerned only with maintaining things as they are no matter how unjust or immoral it be; as the resister of all change.   While it can and does play that role, to say that this is the only role it  plays is to greatly oversimplify reality.   Nor does the evidence of history support such a simplistic view.   In fact, it strongly goes against such a view.

One reason why this static view of religion is wrong is that organized religion is not a static entity.  Organized religion varies, both across geography and across time.  It is not a monolithic, unchanging entity in which all believe and behave alike.  In fact, the exact opposite is true.  It is because of this variety that religion has played often conflicting roles within cultures and societies, acting as both defender of tradition and at the same time as the catalyst and promoter of change, often radical change.

The anti-slavery movement is a good example of this.  The larger organized religions usually defended slavery for a variety of different reasons; from enthusiastic Biblical justification, to slavery being good for the salvation of the African souls, to slavery being a necessary social institution that the Bible does not condemn.

However, it was also organized religion that led the fight against slavery and which was largely responsible for ending that barbaric institution.   Within Christianity there had always been a strain that denounced and condemned slavery.   For a variety of reasons, both internal to organized religion and external to it, these voices and their influence grew stronger as time went on, especially among the newly developed evangelical religions – Quakers, Baptists, and Methodist (although the first anti-slavery society in the United States was create by a Puritan, John Williams, in the 17th century).

Now, I am not going to make an already long blog even longer by going into all the reasons for this change except to say, again, that some of the causes for this change lay within organized religion and some were external to it.   I will also point out that even in those cases where an outside force – social movement, intellectual changes, political events, etc. – creates the change in a religion, organized religion then often acts to magnify that change and spread it faster and more effectively than could any other institution at the time.  Although it may not the originator of the change it can act as a catalyst, greatly speeding the change.  And afterwards, once established it can maintain that change within a society.



So, bottom line, until recently organized religion was necessary for the formation and continuance of a given society’s morals and values. However, as societies grew, changed, and evolved so too did the functions of organized religion (religious service, government support, education, health, etc) within that society.  Often these changes were in the direction of more inclusive and/or more secular institutions.  It was not until modern times – the 17th century – that institutions and ideals evolve that would finally separate organized religion from government and still allow governments to fully function.   In fact, at that time secular institutions became necessary because from being a benefit organized religion was becoming a liability.

Today I think (and hope) that organized religion is dying out.   I do not think it will ever disappear, but with the separation of church and state and the growth of those not affiliated with any religion its influence will wane.   I do think that individual belief in God and religion will remain the majority belief for a long time to come – but without it being organized as in the past and without being joined to government that this becomes a matter of individual belief and conscience rather than governmental policy.

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