The Role of Church and State

The Role of Church and State

The First Amendment to our Constitution, known as the “Establishment Clause,” states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” This Clause is perhaps one of the greatest gifts to humanity - a gift too few governments have accepted. How many times have governments seized hold of religions for their purposes or religions have adulterated their beliefs for the sake of power and in the end, everyone suffered – the church and the state?

The original purpose of the Establishment Clause was to protect religion from the state and not to protect the state from religion (as it is often used today). The Founders were advocating for individual expression of belief without the constraint of state intrusion. Though most of the Founders were not Christians, many were Deists – they believed in a Higher Power of some sort. Many, like Jefferson and Franklin did not attend services of worship, but they valued religion. Religion taught honesty and justice and responsibility. Political scientist Rogers M. Smith put it simply, “support given by religious to virtuous standards of behavior was indispensable for the preservation of liberty.”[1]

But more than being a means to keeping law and order, the Founders believed religion served an essential role as the moral and ethical conscience to the state. Democracy needs religion to be free so it can critique the state. Writer Gary Wills once said, “That is one of the American paradoxes we can be most proud of – that our churches have influence because they are independent of any government.”[2] This also means church and government will be at odds. Since religion gives authority to God first and foremost, then by nature the church will, at times, either deny or outright attack the authority of the state.

Our calling as religious people is to apply our faith into matters of the state. To believe we should or could set aside our faith in secular matters is to imply our faith does not hold the ultimate place it should. Granted, we will differ on what God calls us to do and believe (as Lincoln pointed out in his Second Inaugural Address, “Both (North and South) read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.”), so we will tread lightly when proclaiming, “God’s will.”

However, our calling remains to speak truth to power. God demands our allegiance.  The best thing religious people we can do for our nation is devoutly seek the will of God and give witness to that will, as best we can. In the words of Harold Kushner even if religion “can’t change the facts about the world we live in…it can change the way we see those facts, and that in itself can often make a real difference.”[3]

Together in Christ,

Pastor Steve


[1] P. 36 In his book, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion, Harvard professor, Stephen L. Carter, makes a clear case for how our society embraces faith in God as fundamental to our American heritage and then does its best to marginalize the very faith which the society claims to be irreplaceable.

[2] Ibid, P.39.

[3] Ibid., P.37

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