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Church and State: Keep Them Separated

This post was written before I became an atheist and does not represent my current views. You can find more up-to-date posts on religion in my faith/skepticism category.

(This is the article I wrote for the June church newsletter.)

On my recent vacation I stopped by the Truman State University campus and visited some teachers and people I used to work with. One of them, a secretary who didn't know me well, but knew I was a minister, asked me this: "What do you think about them taking God out of everything? No prayer in schools . . . what's the world coming to?" I'm not sure if she honestly wanted to know what I thought, but I didn't tell her. We had one more stop to make, we were running behind already, and I wasn't about to try and start a discussion then and there. But it is something I've been thinking about, and my thoughts may surprise you.

Rather than trying to sort out one issue in particular, I'm going to ask you to see a bigger picture. The debate over the separation of church and state is constantly raging over one issue or another. Legalized gay marriage and the constitutional amendment opposing it has been in the news recently. A few months ago the phrase "One nation under God" was the hot topic. Before that it was evolution vs. creation in the science classroom and prayer in school. An in-depth treatment of any of these issues requires more space than our newsletter can hold and more research than I have time for. What I can do is ask this question: Do we want America to become a theocracy, or is the separation of church and state a good thing? Personally, I don't want to see America become a theocracy.

When religious groups control or too strongly influence governments, the results are not good. History is full of examples: the Dark Ages in Europe, the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, the Taliban in Afghanistan. If you really want to know about the dangers of an American theocracy, you need look no further than the state of Utah. The Mormon church, or church of Latter Day Saints (LDS), dominates public life in Salt Lake City. Ties between Utah public schools and the LDS church make life difficult for non-Mormon kids. Many of them convert just to escape the pressure. Parents who don't like what goes on in the schools are free to file a suit, but chances are the case will be heard by a Mormon judge. The church attempts to silence ideas that it doesn't agree with, and history is rewritten to cover the church's mistakes. And this is life in Utah with some separation of church and state. If the laws were relaxed things would only get worse.

As a government and a religious group become more entangled, the rights of the minority are undermined. If the US government became overtly Christian, unbelievers would become second-class citizens. Not only that, but a theocracy would, in a sense, weaken the church. People would choose Christianity for its social benefits rather than its truth. The choice that is so important to faith would give way to pressure, fear and coercion. Nominal Christianity would be even more prevalent than it is now.

Theocracy would be bad for unbelievers, bad for believers and bad for the state. C.S. Lewis, a strong proponent of Christianity, explained why a theocratic government would be dangerous:

I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others. And the higher the pretensions of such power, the more dangerous I think it both to rulers and to the subjects. Hence Theocracy is the worst of all governments. If we must have a tyrant a robber baron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point may be sated; and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong he may possibly repent. But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely more because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations ("A Reply to Professor Haldane." On Stories. ed. Walter Hooper. Harcort & Brace Co: Orlando, Florida. 1996).

Both the government and the citizens are protected by the separation of church and state, and it's been this way for centuries. Some people see separation as a new idea, brought on by activist judges and the decadence of the twentieth century. But was America, as many believe, created as a Christian nation? Most of the founders were Christians (although several of the more prominent framers were deists or Unitarians), but they were all careful to make America a democratic nation, where citizens are allowed to believe or disbelieve anything they want. Even the most devoted Christians who helped write the Constitution understood that theocracy would be bad for the nation and bad for the church.

Many of the things brought today as evidence that this is a Christian nation are relatively recent changes. It wasn't until 1864 that the motto "In God We Trust" appeared on coins, and it was only added to paper money in 1964. The original pledge of allegiance didn't have the phrase "under God". It was added in 1954. Fifty years seems like a long time, but that should be kept in a greater perspective. For the last 200 years America has provided freedom of religion for its citizens. The framers understood that the state and religion should not be entangled. Early settlers in North America had left Europe to escape from oppressive state-sponsored churches. The framers remembered that fact and today's church needs to remember it and avoid undermining the very separation that protects it.

I'm not suggesting that we should avoid the political process altogether. Christians have the same right as anyone to try to influence policy in our democracy. I understand that in some cases the separation goes too far, almost to the point of prohibiting the free exercise of religion, and we should work against that. But we need to ask ourselves, "What is our goal?" If we allow the church and the state to get too entangled then we may find that we've created a monster.

8 comments

Great article! Danny, I think that you are right on.


the big lowitzki [Visitor] • http://hippydave.brendoman.com05/27/04 @ 09:09

I agree completely, Danny. Thanks for saying all that. Another thought I have had is this: I support the separation of Church and State not because I think God has no place in politics, but because I think politics have no place in the Church.


Kyle [Visitor]• 05/27/04 @ 11:36

Good comments & well-written, Danny. I agree that we do not want a theocracy, and you’re right that often times the free exercise of religion is infringed upon. Here is a thought I’ve been working on for a while.

I’ve been reading Ravi Zacharias’ “Jesus Among Other Gods,” and many of his points are indirectly related to the topic you’ve addressed. As a public school teacher, I believe that in the next 20 years, the separation of “church and state” must change to address worldviews (rather than “churches"). I do not wish to force anyone to be a Christian, but we must ask the following question: If “church” (i.e. organized religions like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism) is separate from state, then what worldview governs all of our actions and laws? When a student comes to me, having just suffered a tragedy in his or her life, what can I tell this young person that will console them or help them cope with losing a parent or some other horrible circumstance? Each organized religion - as well as every worldview, like atheism - MUST answer this question in some way. As a nation, what do we tell this child? The atheist says, “There is no god; no right; no wrong; it just happened.” Buddhism says, “You are being punished for wrongs you did in a previous life.”

Every world view has an answer. But in our schools today we are only able to answer in certain ways. Though our answers must be separate from religion, these answers are grounded in a worldview nonetheless. We can never have separation of worldview and state, so perhaps we should think in terms of philosophy than in terms of organized religion or “church.”

I hope this makes sense and provides something interesting to think about.


Tim [Visitor]• 05/27/04 @ 16:49

You raise an interesting question, Tim, but I have to ask: why do we need to try to make sense of a student’s tragedy at all? Is that really an appropriate response to someone else’s pain? Isn’t it enough to simply offer a listening ear and point the student in the direction of a counselor for further help in the grief process?


Kyle [Visitor]• 05/27/04 @ 21:07

Kyle,

I haven’t experienced the type of grief to which I referred. However when a student is in need, I try to help, and though a listening ear is sometimes all that is needed, I believe counselors are well-trained and wise to provide the answers many people are looking for. For this reason, it would be completely reasonable to direct the student to a counselor. But then what counsel would be provided from the counselor? Again, the counselor has a worldview that will greatly impact their approach to the healing process. I’m no expert in psychology, but I believe Christian counseling would be better than being counseled by someone who adheres to the teachings of a new-age psychologist (though I’m not sure how many such people remain).

Tragedy is related to suffering, and all worldviews seek to address the reasons for human suffering because it is so pervasive and inexplicable. Most people are curious to know why bad things happen (especially to good people). And most of them will seek out an answer to that question. Which worldviews will they find when they go searching? Jesus’ disciples asked Him about a blind man: “Who sinned - this man or his parents - that he should be blind?” Ravi Zacharias posits that the worldview underlying the various answers to this question is what makes Christianity unique.

Perhaps I chose a poor example. But I don’t want to get away from the fact that an underlying worldview affects our government no matter what. I could just have easily used as an example a student who comes and asks me what the meaning of life is, or what his or her purpose in life is. All organized religions and other worldviews like atheism must have answers to these questions. What worldview is prevalent in our public schools? The answer to this question has serious ramifications.

Here’s my point. I’m dealing with “church” and “religion” as being synonymous with “worldview” and “belief system.” When “church” and state are separated, it is illegal to allow a “religious” worldview to be promoted in schools. What then fills that religious void is something - some worldview or belief system similar to atheism. Is the absence of official religion still a “religion” (even though an unofficial one)? If we think in terms of worldview rather than “religion,” then we must answer yes.

I claim that perhaps we DO have a theocracy because some worldview lays the foundation for all of our decisions. Is it one of the world’s major religions? No. That’s illegal. But there is still a worldview there that is controlling our laws and people. This worldview has flexible moral boundaries and no official doctrine. This is dangerous because, as we all know, it is foolish to build one’s house upon the sand.


Tim [Visitor]• 05/27/04 @ 22:37

If only we knew someone with experience as a counselor in a school setting.


danny [Visitor] • http://danny.brendoman.com05/27/04 @ 23:10

Okay, okay. Kyle showed me your comment, Danny, and I will assume it was directed at least partially to me.

First of all, I really see the point that you’re making, Tim, about worldviews. We are always promoting some kind of worldview, even if it is not a religious one but one that glorifies science or “diversity” or whatever. I think Chuck Colson (Colton? I can never remember) talks about that in “How Now Shall We Live.”

I like to think, though, that instead of promoting any one worldview in a school, that we would promote the students’ explorations of their own or their own family’s views and values. In fact, that is the answer to the question about how a counselor would handle such a situation.

As a counselor trained in a secular program to work at a secular university, we are instructed to enter each session as “values-free” as possible. Of course this is likely never entirely achieved, but it is always the goal. This way, we are able to be open to the values of the client and to attempt to reflect these back to them. Then we can have a discussion about death, life, relationships, or whatever based on the client’s ideas. Even if that person is confused about their values, we can reflect this confusion and help them work through thoughts on what they really believe is true.

So the way that plays out in real life in my experience is that I might have one conversation about a parent’s death where we discuss heaven and Jesus, and another with someone else about reincarnation. Just as I don’t enter a session talking to my client about my own problems, I don’t talk to them about my own values. The only time this might be an exception is when it is someone I have been seeing for a long time who specifically expresses a desire to know my values, and then I would give only a brief statement accompanied by the reminder that they are not expected to agree with my values.

I suppose the practical conclusion of this is one that still supports the separation of church and state. If a student in a public school talks to a teacher about something like a death, I think it is most appropriate to ask the student questions about how they are coping, without offering any “explanations” for their suffering outside of what they are thinking about themselves. And I think this works, practically, since I assume that the teacher’s primary concern is the student’s coping anyway. And as for students’ salvation, I hope that a Christian teacher’s (or counselor’s)behavior would reflect their relationship with Jesus, so it would not need to be expressed verbally.

Sorry for my long-windedness…
–Erika


Erika [Visitor]• 06/02/04 @ 12:46

I agree with everything you said, Erika. And, coming from the longest-winded person I know (me), I can honestly say you’re not long winded.

I think we are in the same book, just thinking about different chapters. You are thinking about ethical counseling techniques in a public school setting that are meant to affirm and protect a person’s values as you seek to heal the individual. This is a good thing, I believe, and an appropriate separation of worldview and state in a government-funded organization.

However this could very well be the only place every student’s worldview is tolerated and fostered in the public school. Consider a science classroom during the study of evolution. If it were similar to a counseling session, then each student would sit down with the science teacher and tell the teacher what they believe (i.e. big bang, God-created, aliens, reincarnation, that earth is sitting on the back of two elephants that are standing on a giant sea turtle that swims through the ether). The science teacher would then reflect this worldview by looking at the evidence that supports the student’s beliefs and helping the student more intellectually defend his position. This is not what happens, obviously.

Instead, all students from all backgrounds and worldviews are placed in a room and given a textbook that promotes one explanation for the existence of humans and the universe - macroevolution. All students who believe God created the universe are essentially told they are wrong and that billions of years ago all of the matter in the universe (that came from somewhere) shrunk down to a singularity - where all laws of physics break down - and then exploded. Eventually chemicals mixed together to become single-celled organisms, and billions of years later we are writing on a blog on the Internet. Where is the diversity of thought? Where is the tolerance of ideas? Do these ideals not apply when examining scientific evidence?

My point is that this explanation of the universe’s existence reflects a SINGLE worldview that is being promoted by governmental organizations. Call it the church of science or the religion of chance. The theory of macroevolution has changed quite a bit in the past 30 years as new discoveries have been made, and I believe people should acknowledge that the element of faith is present regardless of what one believes. Currently in public schools and in our country, the only faith that can be legally promoted is an atheistic one.

So perhaps parents should have a choice regarding how their children learn about the origins of the universe. I would be content to provide biology classes that reflect any and all worldviews. This would be a better option than promoting only one worldview, because promoting only one explanation does not reflect a separation of worldview and state.

On a personal note, in order for me to believe that I - a biologically complex being capable of rational thought - am the mere product of chance happenings over the course of billions of years, I would also have to believe that Mt. Rushmore was the result of erosion and stormy weather. I don’t think I can do that. Worldview and faith. We all have one. Thanks for your thoughts, Erika. I hope I’ve helped clarify what I’m trying to say.

-Tim


Tim [Visitor]• 06/02/04 @ 22:51