When I hear someone use the phrase, “separation of church and state,” I admit that my first reaction is negative. While I am well aware of the history behind the phrase and the constitutional principle that it embodies, there can be little doubt that this phrase has become a lighting rod in the culture wars in our country. Perhaps it was always contentious, but it remains so now more than ever.
I suppose that’s one of the reasons that the Religious Liberty Committee of the Baptist General Association of Virginia (BGAV) included the language “separation of church and state” in a resolution presented to Virginia Baptists at their annual meeting. After some debate and questioning from a few pastors objecting to the language, the resolution overwhelmingly passed.
I have previously discussed my opinions regarding the BGAV’s religious liberty resolution in my post, “Virginia Baptists & Religious Liberty.” Because of questions that have arisen within the comment stream here and in an ongoing dialogue over at the BaptistLife Forums regarding the BGAV’s resolution, I thought it might be helpful to explore the issue of “separation of church and state” in a broader context.
As a conservative Southern Baptist who is concerned about religious liberty issues, I have come to view the use of the phrase “separation of church and state” as not only negative, but also divisive. Bruce Gourley, a Baptist historian and owner of the BaptistLife website, asked why I thought the idea of “separation of church and state” drives people apart. After all, our Baptist forefathers fought and died for the idea of a free church in a free state.
Gourley has compiled quotes from famous Baptists of yesteryear in support of the principle of separation of church and state. Among the many is a 1791 quote from famous Virginia Baptist pastor John Leland:
“Is conformity of sentiments in matters of religion essential to the happiness of civil government? Not at all. Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of the mathematics. Let every man speak freely without fear–maintain the principles that he believes–worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing, i.e., see that he meets with no personal abuse or loss of property for his religious opinions. Instead of discouraging him with proscriptions, fines, confiscation or death, let him be encouraged, as a free man, to bring forth his arguments and maintain his points with all boldness; then if his doctrine is false it will be confuted, and if it is true (though ever so novel) let others credit it. When every man has this liberty what can he wish for more? A liberal man asks for nothing more of government.” John Leland, “Right of Conscience Inalienable, and Therefore, Religious Opinions Not Cognizable By The Law,” The Writings of the Later Elder John Leland, published in 1845.
As I read the above quote by Leland, there is really nothing that I would disagree with from a constitutional point of view. Leland has articulated the principles enshrined within the First Amendment, but he did it without ever using the phrase “separation of church and state.”
You see, I really do believe that we can find much common ground on religious liberty issues when we are willing to set aside language that is unduly contentious and divisive. The same can be said about traditionalists who claim that America was “founded as a Christian nation.” I think I know what people mean when they say this, but there are many who go into orbit at just the mention of America’s Christian heritage.
Was our country founded with Christianity as the official state religion? Of course not. Many of the original settlers, including Baptists, left England and Europe to escape from state sponsored religious persecution. Has our nation’s founding been influenced by Christianity and Judeo/Christian principles? I think it would be hard to argue otherwise.
So, here’s the questions. When the Barry Lynns of the world argue that there must be a strict “separation of church and state,” what do you hear him saying? When the David Bartons of the world proclaim that “America was founded as a Christian nation,” what do you hear him saying? I know what I hear. But, as my wife reminds me almost daily, I have selective hearing. I’m guessing that you do to.