f The Wittenberg Door: Separation of Church and State

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Commenting on Christendom, culture, history, and other oddities of life from an historic Protestant perspective.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Separation of Church and State

In Burlington Township, New Jersey, Police, faculty, staff, and students of a local high school participated in a terrorism drill.

The mock terror attack involved two irate men armed with handguns who invaded the high school through the front door. They pretended to shoot several students in the hallway and then barricaded themselves in the media center with 10 student hostages.

In order to make the event “as real as possible,” actual events were taken into consideration in creating the scenario, a scenario where a certain religion known for spreading it’s message by the sword takes over a school.

Two Burlington Township police detectives portrayed the gunmen. Investigators described them as members of a right-wing fundamentalist group called the “New Crusaders” who don't believe in separation of church and state. The mock gunmen went to the school seeking justice because the daughter of one had been expelled for praying before class.

Last year, in a rural California school district, an elective philosophy course on Intelligent Design was canceled due to legal pressure. Like the Dover case (and scores of others), the lawsuit’s premise was that the course “violated the constitutional separation of church and state.”

But what is this “separation of church and state” thing all about?


Applying the Bill of Rights to both federal and state governments is a modern notion. Back in 1791, the year the First Amendment was ratified, 9 of the 13 state governments had official, tax-supported churches. Since the amendment was seen as only applying to the federal government, nobody believed that there was any conflict—nobody, that is, except for Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut.

The Connecticut state constitution endorsed Congregationalism. Although the Baptists were tolerated, they had serious concerns about discrimination; they were also concerned that the state government would start interfering with the operation of the church. So, in 1801, the Danbury Baptist Association took a bold step and wrote to the newly elected President of the United States—Thomas Jefferson.

Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty – That Religion is at all times and places a Matter between God and Individuals – That no man ought to suffer in Name, person or effects on account of his religious Opinions – That the legitimate Power of civil Government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbour: But Sir our constitution of government is not specific. Our antient charter, together with the Laws made coincident therewith, were adopted as the Basis of our government at the time of our revolution; and such had been our laws & usages, & such still are; that Religion is considered as the first object of Legislation; & therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights: and these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgements, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen. It is not to be wondered at therefore; if those who seek after power & gain under the pretence of government & Religion should reproach their fellow men – should reproach their chief Magistrate, as an enemy of religion Law & good order because he will not, dares not assume the prerogative of Jehovah and make Laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ.

Thomas Jefferson agreed with the Baptists that it was inappropriate for the state to interfere with maters of conscience, faith, and worship.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, 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. adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

If we are to use the term “separation between Church & State,” we must do so honestly, keeping the original context in mind: Thomas Jefferson was writing to Baptists who were being persecuted by an officially Congregationalist state government. Thus, he was not calling for a wall that protected the government from the church, but the church from the government—an important point to remember when discussing this topic.

Tactical Consideration

Anthony Sciubba was one of 14 students being honored with a full-page tribute in his high school yearbook. A problem arose, however, when he attributed his success to God. The school, citing concerns about separation of church and state, altered his comment to read, “he owed his success to others.”

What is a good way for Mr. Sciubba or others to respond?

My first offering employs a tactic called reductio ad absurdum (reduce to absurdity). In this tactic you assume your opponent's premises and then follow the logic of those premises to their absurd conclusion.

Let’s begin by reviewing the amendment in question:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

(First Amendment - Freedom of Religion, Press, Expression)

Our Founding Fathers were careful to guard against the establishment of a state (federal) church, hence this amendment—they stipulated that congress may not establish a state church, nor infringe upon the citizens' right to worship as they please.

So here’s what you ask the person citing "separation": “How does the teaching of, for example, Intelligent Design, or the mentioning of God in a yearbook, cause congress to come into session, vote-in a state church, pass along the new law to the president, and cause him to sign it into law?”

By using reductio ad absurdum, we hope to show the person that his understanding of the First Amendment cannot possibly mean what he claims.

As you can see, this line of reasoning doesn’t prove anything—it’s not meant to. It’s simply one means of taking away an arrow from your opponent’s quiver.

A quick note: When using reductio ad absurdum, it’s very easy to become sarcastic. We must resist this urge (a real tough one for me); we must also remember that we are called to be ambassadors’ of Christ (2 Cor. 5:20), and as such we must treat our opponents with respect, thus honoring the One we represent.

The “Seperation” Trap

As we have just seen, the term “separation of church and state” is not an accurate summary of the First Amendment. Thus, the term should not be used when discussing this topic, for doing so would poison the well of your argument—you’ve killed your argument before you let it loose.

Instead, use the constitutionally faithful term “Non-Establishment Clause.” Not only is the term accurate—and we should always strive for accuracy and honesty—but it also lays the foundation for using the tactic above.

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Blogger Eddie Eddings said...

Thank you for this post! I will be using "non-establishment clause" from now on. It certainly clarifies what we are trying to communicate, and dispels the twisted secular interpretation.

9:27 AM  
Blogger The Wittenberg Door said...

Glad to be of service, Eddie!

5:29 PM  

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