The Church of State

“...I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”  - Thomas Jefferson

A common statement I’ve heard among church goers is that America is a “Christian Nation.”  And while it might be true that many of the founders of America were of the Christian faith and were influenced by Christian values, they also saw the dangers of blending the elements of church with the governing responsibilities of the State.   

Growing up in a religious home and going to church my entire life, I didn’t always see the wisdom and benefit that comes from the idea that Church and State should be separate matters.  I was taught that God should permeate every element of our lives, and therefore be included in our governmental decisions and policies.  

It wasn’t until I got a little older and gained a better grasp on how our government works that I began to see the wisdom and benefit to Jefferson’s observation that we should possess a “wall of separation between Church and State.”  

Like most kids, I only saw the world from my prospective, and since I was a Christian, naturally that perspective was from the platform of Christianity.  I used to believe that our nation would be better if there was a strong infusion of Christianity into our government. Then it occurred to me......if our nation is a republic with democratic ideals, then what would happen if the demographic of our nation were to become less and less Christian? What would happen if our nation became dominated by some other religion  whose values I didn’t share?  If that were to occur, would I want my nation to already have the established practice of following the tenets of the majority religion?  My answer to this was a firm “No!”  And with that realization, I began to understand the meaning of Jefferson’s idea.  If I don’t want the government imparting a religion on me that I was not inclined to adhere to....then I couldn’t wish for the government to impart my religion onto others.  

The other component to this wall of separation is that the wall works both ways and serves to keep the State out of the Church as well.  While the concept of this wall has been in effect since our nation's founding, the adherence to it has not necessarily been followed.  With the granting of tax exemptions to churches, the state reached into church and offered a special treatment that can be revoked should the church not behave in ways the State deems appropriate to maintain that tax exempt status.  

Likewise, as can be seen in the realm of marriage, the church has reached into the State with the religious institution of marriage, and what was once a religious practice is now something that must be done with the permission of the State in the form of a marriage license.  Even the term “legally married” has worked its way into church vernacular as being the standard that legitimizes a marriage.  

With the recent gay marriage rulings, many in the church were upset with the State’s attempt to “redefine” marriage.  The problem is that marriage was never the business of the State to begin with as it is a religious institution. And since it is the job of the State to protect people’s freedom to worship as they please, the gay marriage issue wasn’t one that should have needed to go to the State for definition.  Gay people should not have ever needed to petition the State to seek the “right” to marriage.  Under the freedom of religion, should a religion have emerged that agreed with gay marriage, then they could have been married in that setting with no interference from the State.  

In short, that should always have been a church issue, not a State issue.  As a result of this blend, ordained ministers are licensed by the State to perform marriages on behalf of the State.  And since the State must treat people alike, the door has been opened for ministers to perform marriages they may not agree with. As a result, they end up becoming representatives of the State when it comes to marriage.  Had the State and church not blended over the topic of marriage, ministers and parishioners alike could have pursued or rejected the theologies and practices of their choosing with no fear of retribution from the State.  

Want to have a gay marriage?  Fine, go to a church that will do that for you...the State won’t stand in the way.   Don’t want to perform a gay marriage as a minister?  Fine, go ahead and refuse with no worry that the State can try to force you to as an agent of such.  

But what happens in a nation where people become more and more secular?  What about all the people who don’t believe in God, or theology, or organized religion?  After all, there are many people, perhaps even a majority now, who would not consider themselves to be “religious” yet still believe in the basic premises of caring for their common man.  What happens to the “wall of separation” for those who only have a State but no “church?”    

From its outset, the concept of “Church” wasn’t simply for the purposes of worship but also mobilization.  The community of church allowed for people to organize and become more effective in implementing their world view through the power of community.  This is part of why the separation of Church and State is so important. We can see, historically and contemporarily, the power of theocracies to use the power of State to inflict the world view of a particular religion upon its people.  

But in a secular society....or for members of a society that consider themselves secular, adhering no particular “church”, there is no church from which to separate their State.  As a the secularist...there is great danger in the State BECOMING this person’s church.  Think about it.  People of different religions naturally believe a certain way...thus the reason they join their church.  And churches are organizations in which people use to attempt to influence the world around them.  If you have no “church” then the natural place to turn to influence others with your world view is...the State.  

Without realizing it, we begin to use the State as our mobilization force to care for the sick, tend to the weak, and take care of the poor.  Each of these things being elements that used to belong to “the church”, whatever that church might look like.  

The purpose of State in the American paradigm is to limit power.  Therefore it is dangerous to blend the ideals of compassion and care for your common man as responsibilities of the State. In doing so, the State becomes more powerful with each citizen that becomes dependent upon it for sustenance.  While it might not feel compassionate, to confuse the role of the State to be the distributor of care rather than the limiter of power is to continue to blur the line Jefferson so wisely established as completely separate responsibilities.  

The care and compassion for one another must rest in the hearts and minds of the citizens that compose a nation.  It is a personal responsibility belonging to us as individuals, a decision that rests between us and the God we worship or the god we don’t worship.  But to begin to legislate that compassion through the State tears down Jefferson’s wall by creating the Church of State.  


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