WHAT IS “SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE”?

“Separation of church and state” is a phrase common to Americans.  We get it from Thomas Jefferson, a founding father.  I grew up well acquainted with the phrase (and, I believe, with the common understanding of it too).  But the older I get, the less it really makes sense.  It just is not as clear as I once thought.

I never associated the phrase with St. John’s prophetic apocalypse in Revelation 18:4, but I surely do now.  And yet I am certain St. John’s words (a completely different phraseology from Jefferson’s) were not intended to mean the same thing either, but once they are cross referenced, they seem to do a lot of business with one another.

I was not yet born when John F. Kennedy ran for and became our president, but he was the first Catholic to attain that high office.  Protestants and Catholics already had a long and tumultuous history before that moment, but in theory Catholics were welcome and free in the USA.  Yet the moment one became POTUS, there was a kneejerk fear he might bend his ear to the Pope, and the POTUS would effectively be a puppet-leader of a foreign power.

And I get it.

Your religious convictions are meant to be that deep by design.  To check them at the door in some effort to “represent the will of the people” sounds downright impossible.  If not impossible, it sounds like a bargain with the devil in practically every other context open to consideration.  (Damned if you do/damned if you don’t.)

But what I never heard anyone consider is whether the same type of concern can be applied to Protestants.  Just because there were battles between popes and kings in long ago church history doesn’t mean Protestants are immune to the same concerns of a more esoteric variety.  What influence does a Methodist pastor have on a POTUS?  What lobbying interest comes to bear on POTUS with a National Prayer Breakfast?  Where’s the alarm there?

By the way, we are obviously talking about a phenom in ways St. John certain is NOT addressing it, even though these ideas intersect at the same point.

But then again, why limit this observation to POTUS?  What about the average American voter?  Are these Americans supposed to check their religion at the door too?  Is that what Billy Graham or Jerry Falwell had in mind?

This question (not the conclusion) crystalized (Can a question do that?) for me when about a decade back I heard N.T. Wright, in the midst of a lecture, say about his country and ours, “In England we have an official joining of church and state; in America you have an official separation of church and state, and yet neither one of those works out in practice anything like stated.”  (Actually, that is probably a paraphrase.)

Boy… that’s an understatement.

I want to get back to St. John.  If not back to him exactly, at least a closer approximation.  The “church” of the first century (this will probably come as a shock to most outsiders and uninitiated) was not some power bloc or cultural institution that anyone in government thought they had to reckon with.  They didn’t get a vote; they were not in charge of any agencies, departments, and certainly were not on the “throne” of empire.

The power and influence the early church wielded was real, but not of this world.  It was highly self-sacrificial, and so the empire killed Christians every day by crucifixion, burnt at the stake, fed to wild beasts, and beheaded.  Christians were easy to kill; they would step up and volunteer to die as witness to Christ’s reign.  But Christians were stubbornly hard to be rid of by any stretch of the imagination.

But there’s something beneath that which seems tricky to discern: God’s LOVE.

Those early Christians didn’t form the precursor of some voting bloc or a “moral majority.”  They took up crosses and followed Jesus rather than pressuring a senator’s vote on this or that program, law, or budget.  In fact, they viewed the government, even pagan government, as ironically and divinely directed – somehow behind the scenes.

But they laid down their lives as a matter of their LOVE for God and others.

Oh, they preached and sang praises on their way to their executions, meaning they had a Christian agenda alright.  But underneath all of that was their love for God and others, and under that was God’s love for us.  Their own lives were not big enough, individually, to contain God’s love which poured out on the world in their martyrdom/witness.  And their God became enthroned on the praise of his people (Ps. 22) which was a power the world could not resist.

So, now in my later life, when I think of Jefferson’s phrase, “separation of church and state,” I see it as a purposeful separation of God’s love from America.

Not that humans can succeed in such an endeavor, but when humans engage in it, I figure pointing out the oddity and futility is wise.

Pull out of that whore!

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