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Separation of Church and State

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.)

This is a clever image showing a separation of church and state
Separation of Church and State

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

John F Kennedy wanted an absolute separation of Church and state
JFK Quote

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.

Roy Clouser

Running The Country

Some History

Great Seal of the United States

Back in the days following Richard Nixon’s resignation, there was a lot of discussion about whether Gerald Ford should or should not grant Nixon a pardon. Once that pardon became a fact, the consensus among news reporters went something like this: The Nation has been traumatized by the Watergate scandal, and needs to stop obsessing over it. Therefore, Ford has done the right thing. Instead of focusing on past wrongs, the Presidency is now free to get back to running the country. (Italics added) For an idea on how pervasive this phrase is, google the phrase “running the country” and see how many places those words appear.

It’s the last phrase of that opinion I want to call attention to, because it has recently surfaced again. In his interview with George Stephanopoulos last week, President Trump said: “I do a good job running the country.

Not the same as the Nation

What I’m about to say about that expression should not be taken as mere carping about words. The words phrasing a belief reflect how we think about it. The inaccurate phrase alters the belief itself over time when not phrased accurately . So the first thing I point to is that the Federal Government is not the same thing as our nation. The nation is made up of individuals who are members of many types of social communities, in addition to being citizen-participants in its government. For example, the nation includes marriages, families, schools, and churches. It also includes businesses, charity and artistic organizations, as well as unions, political parties, and clubs of various kinds.

We also point to the fact that the President does not even run the entire Federal Government. Whoever holds that office is the chief of the executive branch of the Federal Government, but does not “run” its two other components: the legislature (Congress) and the courts. And those limitations don’t yet include the fact that each state in the US also has its own government, which the President also doesn’t “run.”

Limits on Government

Limits on running the government
Is the Federal Government Limited?

The idea of limits to executive power goes back a long way in the history of the US and of its ancestry in British common law. For centuries, a King or Queen of England was under legal restraints concerning entering a private home, for example. A King of England could knock at the door of a family’s dwelling, but needed permission to enter. The monarch is the head of the government. However, families (and other social communities) are not parts of the government. That is a fact even though these communities are surely included in the nation.

Abraham Kuyper

It was the Christian political thinker Abraham Kuyper who gave this idea its most cogent development in the early 20th century. Kuyper noticed that the scriptures recognize a number of different kinds of authority in social life. He pointed to the authority of the parents in a family or the owners in a business. The teachers in a school and the clergy in a church have a delimited sphere. This holds as well for the elected officials in government. He spoke of each distinct kind of authority as a “sphere” of life. He taught that each authority proper to a particular sphere had a God-given immunity from interference from authorities in other spheres. No one sphere can claim to be running the country.

Sphere Sovereignty

We call this “sphere sovereignty.” It’s the reasoning behind our sense that something is wrong in certain situation. For example, when the government rather than parents tries to say what sort of education their children should have. Or when the government tries to require membership in a particular church. It’s also a violation of sphere sovereignty when special interest groups attempt to influence a government legislature in their favor,. Why? The task of the legislature is to achieve the common good. (for more on this, click here and here) As I put the point in The Myth of Religious Neutrality: “The Christian view of [government] is that [the government] should not favor Christianity…  [It] requires that government… concentrate on the goal of bringing about a maximally just society for all people, whether they believe in God or not” (p. 319).

God is in Charge

This is why it’s so important not to let the expression “runs the country” get off without being called up short. On the Christian view, “there is no single social institution or [human] authority that is supreme over all the rest. And assigning such a status to any community is to have it usurp a status that belongs only to God” (p. 298).