Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 Letter About Separation of Church and State
The expression “separation of church and state” does not appear in any of the founding documents of the US. It comes, instead, from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 to an association of Baptists in Danbury, Conn. Baptists had a history of being persecuted in countries with an official religion, and wrote to the newly elected President Jefferson with concerns that their state had no specific statutes protecting their religious liberty.
In reply, Jefferson quotes the first amendment to the effect that “Congress shall make no law” to establish an official religion or to prohibit “the free exercise thereof…” Jefferson then expresses his understanding of that amendment to mean there should be “a wall of separation between church and state.”
Kuyper’s “Sphere Sovereignty.”
In an earlier blog, I gave a brief introduction to Abraham Kuyper’s idea of “sphere sovereignty.” (See also the blog here.) This was based on the way scripture recognizes different authorities in life. This recognition is, in Kuyper’s thinking, a hint as to how to come up with a general theory about the relations between the different forms of authority that naturally arise in human society.
The scriptures speak with approval of the authority of parents in a family, of the clergy in the church, of the owners of a business, the officials in government, and even of teachers in a school. Extrapolating from these examples, Kuyper proposes recognizing other natural authorities such as arise, for example, in medical practice, charity work, artistic organizations, political parties, and unions.
From the sphere sovereignty point of view, it isn’t only state and church that have different spheres of authority. Rather, there are multiple types of it throughout human social life all of which need legal protection from encroachment by other authorities.
These Are Not the Same
At first blush, then, it appears that Jefferson has anticipated by a century the Christian theory of sphere sovereignty with his idea of a “wall of separation” or the idea of the separation of church and state. A closer look, however, shows they are not quite the same ideas. For one thing, Kuyper never spoke about walling off any social sphere from any other. That, he believed, is impossible.
The church exercises its proper authority when it governs the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments, and regulates church membership. The government exercises its proper authority when it makes and enforces a public legal order. This means for sure that the church doesn’t make or enforce public law, and the government doesn’t set theological standards or make requirements for church membership. But can these two institutions of society actually be completely walled off from one another?
Spheres Influence One Another
Scientific ideas influence art, and artistic trends influence how people understand their history. So, too, the moral teachings of the church cannot fail to have an impact on what people believe should be included or not in public law. This includes, but is not limited to, how public law must go about protecting people’s right to freedom of religion. (See, for example, the 4th myth in the Washington Post article Five Myths About the Constitution.)
If this sounds like a tidy prescription, it isn’t. In practice, it can be a messy business to sort out precisely where and how one authority limits another. Consider, for example, the ways Federal law has sought to prevent workplace discrimination. The law, by unintended consequence, ends up endangering a religious institution’s right to hire only employees who are devotees of that religion. That wrinkle got ironed out, but spin-offs of it remain to be sorted out. (See this article.)
Don’t Take It Too Literally
My point here is that – famous as it is – the expression separation of church and state may not be taken too literally or it will be in danger of bringing itself into disrepute. There is a proper separation (of distinct) of authorities, to be sure. And that includes all types of authorities, not just the church and the government. But any “wall” between them is porous, not airtight. That is why the sphere sovereignty idea is not a panacea. It does not guarantee we will never draw the boundaries between different authorities correctly. But we are still better off tackling political/legal issues from within that idea than we would be without it. We will still come closer to what is just than if we begin without recognizing that there are a number of legitimate authorities to be done justice to.
To Sum Up
In sum, this means we must continue to do the hard work of thinking through each specific issue to see where we, as Christians, should stand. There is no short-cut of proclaiming an impenetrable wall between any two of them. Instead, this “thinking through” must be multi-sided. Just as there are many spheres of social life (not only the state, church, and family), there are equally many sides to every major issue of life. And all sides must receive their due, just as all must be protected by the law.
We hear a lot these days about the US becoming less religious, or, more specifically, has less religious affiliation. Nation-wide polls show that more and more people check off “None” when asked about religious affiliation. And that the percentage of those identifying as agnostic or atheist has risen from 16% to 23 %. What are dedicated Christians to make of such figures? Are we seeing a real downturn in religious commitment? If so, what is to be done about it?
The answer, I think, is: “Yes,” there is a real downturn but, “No,” the figures aren’t accurate. Let’s take the downturn first.
Following WWII, the US Government hit on a great idea to help slow the return of 10 million GIs into the work force. The idea was to give them a free college education as a benefit of having served their country. Many of those who started college under what was called “the GI Bill” never finished, but whether they finished or not having that opportunity forever changed their attitude toward college. Higher education, which had up to that time been available only to the wealthy, was now something the so-called “greatest generation” wanted for their children.
The result was that from roughly the middle of the last century onward, a college education was added to the expected post high school rites of passage for all but the poorest segment of the population. Moreover, the number of high school grads applying to college was given a significant boost in the 60s by the fact that going to college could exempt men from being drafted to serve in Viet Nam. The result was that by the early 70s, hundreds of thousands more high school graduates were seeking college entrance than would ever have dreamed of it.
Is Educating People Making them “Unaffiliated?”
So, am I suggesting that becoming more educated has resulted in the downturn in religious commitment? I’m sure that’s what some would like to have us believe, but it’s not quite true. It’s not simply being educated that has had the results we’re now seeing. Rather it’s the way religion has been taught at the college level across the nation for the generations since WWII.
Religion courses of all types have been among the most popular in the college curriculum for a long time nation-wide. Comparative Religion, for example, has been a huge draw on all campuses from community colleges to major research universities. Students are drawn to religion courses by curiosity and by what they see as the opportunity to study a fascinating subject. The students’ expectation was a course taught from an unbiased source and point of view, as opposed to the biased sources of their childhood religious upbringing.
The reputation of being difficult that attaches to philosophy courses didn’t prevent philosophy of religion from being well enrolled. Actually, most Introduction to Philosophy courses have regularly included the existence of God among the topics covered. It is the prevailing way these courses were handled that I see as the cause of the present-day decline in religious commitment and religious affiliation.
The Search for Unbiased Teaching
First off, the standard treatment of religious belief was not religiously neutral as opposed to the “biased” treatment of the average church, synagogue or mosque. College instructors have their beliefs and inclinations as do all other humans. And these include whether they believe in God or not. No one can expect anything different, but the average student entering college has been unprepared for that fact. Many even supposed the existence of a neutral stance from which to debate the question of God’s reality. There isn’t.
Second, the standard treatment of whether God is real was (and still is) to examine the arguments that have attempted to prove (or disprove) God’s existence. And there are, and always have been, a minority of professors who defend one or another proof. But, the vast majority left the upshot of their examination stamped “UNDECIDED.” This conclusion conveyed two great mistakes to the last four or five successive generations of American students. Without explicitly stating or examining these mistakes the following was simply accepted. 1) the way to ascertain God’s reality is by argument and proof. And 2) the attempts at proving God’s reality have all failed. The conclusion these generations reached is that no one really knows the truth about whether God exists or not. Many choose to have no religious affiliation.
The Proofs Have Failed
Let’s take the second one first. I agree that the proofs have all failed. But I disagree that their failure leaves God’s existence in doubt. There’s a simple but important point that all attempts to prove God’s reality have overlooked: the New Testament says that God created “everything visible or invisible (Col. 1: 16). If that’s right, it includes the laws of logic, one of the invisible creations. But if God created the laws by which we prove anything, then he is not subject to them. Applying them to God is therefore demoting him to the status of a creature. The proofs argue that God is governed by laws of proof instead of being their Creator.
The proofs have also done other mischief against their best intentions. They have led many people to think that belief in God is a theory, and therefore in need of proof. When we make theories we do, indeed, try to test them. And logical proofs are frequently part of that process. But belief in God is no theory! It is instead a report of the experience of those who have encountered God.
Experience it for Yourself
College students today need to be told to look for their own experience of God, rather than to engage in the logical evaluation of arguments. They need to be urged to read the scriptures in order to hear God speak to them. They need their own encounter with the living Creator who is not the conclusion of an argument. Instead, he is the God and Father of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus Christ.
Defining Basic Morality
The term “basic morality” is one which I think of as the basis for ethical positions taken on any number of subjects. Basic morality is the moral vision which is shared by a whole community. Ethics is a shared group of moral values which help a community to exist. Basic morality is the foundation for a society that can function justly. Basic morality is the shared understanding of what is expected from all members of society.
Perhaps an illustration is called for here. As I write this, there is a group of five men working on the landscaping at a property I own. Basic morality says that since they are working, they are to be paid for their work. It would not be just for me to refuse to pay them. But I am going to only pay the company itself for the work. There is one man who is the owner of the company, therefore I am fulfilling my moral obligation in extending payment to the company through him. The company, in turn, is expected to pay the employees. That is the moral thing to do. The company cannot withhold payment from the workers without incurring moral judgement which could lead to legal judgement in a court of law.
There are several places in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures which call upon a person who employs another to pay that worker for his/her efforts. That is the “right thing” to do. Jesus (in Luke 10) referred to a verse in Deuteronomy when he said, “A workman is worthy of his hire.” When a person gives of her time for another, it is a basic morality obligation to remunerate her for her work.
All of this requires a mutually agreed upon basic morality. I did not ask each of the men who are working for me to arrive such and such a day at this time, and work. They arrived by agreement with the owner of the business. The various workmen do not expect me to pay them for their labor. It is understood by all of us that the company will pay them. Therefore, my observation is that basic morality leads to a system that is deemed to have justice at its core.
When we seek justice, we embody basic morality for our community. The commonly agreed upon moral order needs people who will “en-flesh” that moral order. The principles of the moral order need embodiment in society. The principles must be put into practice by people who are moral agents fully aware of the implications of their actions for society.
So, when you decide on a certain course of action for your life as a laborer, you are expecting (rightly so) that the person who hires you will treat you honestly. However, there are far too many occasions where employers are less than honest when dealing with their employees. It is when that happens that we all become moral/ethical thinkers who rely on a philosophical outlook to shape our response to the situation.
What is your take on this? Were you aware of being a philosopher when asking for a paycheck? Philosophy is not so abstract after all!
Public Ethics in Question
One of the deepest issues of our culture today is determining which ethical principles apply to our lives and our conduct with one another. We call these public ethics. This is especially true when we attempt to find an ethical pathway in a landscape which seems to be filled with hidden pitfalls and changing rules. For example, Nancy Gibbs writing in a recent Time magazine article states,
We all learned back on the playground that whoever makes the rules of the game stands a better chance of winning it. It’s an uncomfortable lesson, one that requires us to accept that norms are fluid, that expectations shift, that people’s actions are not only judged as right or wrong, but are also measured against the depravity or valor of their peers.
The Fluidity of the Rules
Notice that she does not say that the rules are a given. No, these days the rules are “fluid.” People’s actions are not only judged or evaluated to determine if those actions are right or wrong. We judge a person’s actions by the depravity or valor of peers. Unfortunately, she gives no definition of either term. An online dictionary gives us a succinct definition of depravity. “Depravity goes beyond mere bad behavior — it is a total lack of morals, values, and even regard for other living things.” The same dictionary defines valor as “honor plus dignity. It is gallant bravery and strength. Especially on the battlefield or in the face of danger.” Just to round out this group of definitions we should note that the word “norms” is given a singular form when defined. “A statistical average is called the norm.”
So, we discover that it is the statistical average that dictates the norms for behavior. In a culture of habitual liars, a person who tells the truth is outside the norm. But does that make the truth teller a morally suspect person? If the norms are fluid and are determined by someone else’s depravity and still another’s valor, then there is very little that can be called good.
Public Ethics is Fraught With Pitfalls
I define our topic as follows. “Ethics is the motivation to do what is good.” I read a story today of another newsworthy example of this ethical quandary. Google recently set up a public ethics advisory board of people from outside their company. This board’s task was to give advice on ethics in Artificial Intelligence. Google ran into a stunning event. Thousands of their employees (actually about 2-3 %) decried the membership on the board of a person known to be a “conservative.” The woman engaged in “hate” speech toward some members of society (allegedly). See the article at the link https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/4/4/18295933/google-cancels-ai-ethics-board So Google hastily disbanded the ethics advisory board. Google hopes that this puts the mistake behind.
This blog entry demonstrates how important the subject of ethics, justice, mercy and moral reasoning has become. We, as a culture, are unable to even agree on the rules that we attempt to live by. And as Nancy Gibbs says, the rules are changing and those who make the rules often do well because they made the rules. (Emphasis added) How shall we as a culture interact with each other? Which statistician will come up with the averages accepted as the norm? Whose rules will we agree to live by? More discussion will come!