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The Spiritual Importance of Separation of Church and State

When I’m challenged on historical facts about the separation of church and state, I usually simply tell people that if separation of church and state was not part of our constitutional law (and I believe it is), I would still support it.  At least as strong as my political reasons for supporting the separation are spiritual reasons.

Ed Brayton has been commenting on Berkley, Michigan where the decision has been made to turn a nativity display over to the city’s churches.  Ed notes:

And it seems to me that the Christians there should be happy with this as well. Keeping the creche on city property required adding in a bunch of secular symbols as well, watering down the religious significance of the display. I can’t imagine why they would prefer to do that and keep it on city property rather than have it on church property where they have no such restrictions.

I think it’s very bad for religion to acquire the power of the state for itself.  There is an immediate tendency in two directions.  First, we become lazy, expecting the state to do things for us.  Second, we start to compromise in order to keep everyone on board as we must in order to keep that official support.  The town of Berkley, MI may not have its nativity display on public property, a dubious blessing at best, but it will now have a Christian display.

But it’s the first point I want to emphasize.  We are instructed in the gospel commission to make disciples.  Disciples don’t happen because somebody makes a law.  They don’t happen because of monuments to the 10 commandments.  They happen because one Christian is an effective witness to another person and then helps that person become a disciple.

We have the means and the instructions for reducing the rate of abortions, divorces, drug addiction, murder, and other crimes.  It’s reaching out and making disciples, one person at a time.  The money is there in the churches, though often it is spent more to maintain structures than to carry out the gospel commission.  There are people in the churches who could do this, though many, if not most of them are sitting in the pews once a week.

Christianity, or better being a follower of Christ, should be a voluntary effort, funded by the efforts of followers of Christ, and uncompromising because it is carried out by those same followers.  When we get government funding involved in religion I do believe there is a danger to the state.  There is a danger of people enforcing their religion on others.  There is plenty of evidence of this.

But there is also the danger to spirituality, when the things that should be our passion–living Christlike lives characterized by the two laws–become simply a matter of custom and law.

Christians should be concerned about preventing evil deeds.  But they should be more concerned about transforming the people who might commit those deeds.

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  1. I think you’re absolutely right. I think the most significant threat to the institution of marriage in the US isn’t gay marriage, but the fact that we’ve connected the legal institution with the religious commitment. The church would be better off if we were to become totally ambivalent about the legality of marriages that were performed in our churches. Who cares if the state says you are legally married – what does God say?

    By connecting our religious values to public institutions we potentially diminish those values because they are interpreted and applied in multicultural, multiethic, globalized context. We need to own our values and transform the world authentically, not by pretending we’re transforming the world through the imposition of values based on political power.

    Anyway, that’s a long way of saying that I think you’re right and I enjoyed this post.

  2. Having lived in a country where religious sentiment has been routinely exploited by political parties, I agree 100%. Our founding fathers took the effort to write separation of church and state into the Constitution, and we should make every effort to see that it remains in place.

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