Separation of Church and State

Wally Morris

One of the fundamental historical characteristics of Baptist belief has been the belief in the separation of church and state. In America, the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” was the creation of Thomas Jefferson. He wrote those words in an 1802 letter to a group of Baptists from Danbury, Connecticut. Jefferson wrote

“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.”

Notice that Jefferson emphasizes that the powers of government do not extend to regulating or controlling opinions but only behavior. His view corresponds with Romans 13:1-7, one of the major Scriptural passages concerning authority.

Originally the principle of separation of church and state was intended to protect religious people from the government, not protect the government from religious people. Jefferson himself did not see any Constitutional problem with government giving support, financial and otherwise, to religious groups. For example, he supported government funds for missionary work to Indians, and he signed legislation giving churches tax-exempt status. Jefferson’s actions are significant since he himself was not a Christian. He did not believe in the deity of Christ and believed that the apostles had seriously distorted the teachings of Christ. He is well-known for making his own version of the New Testament in which he edited out those verses which he considered part of that distortion.

One factor which contributed to Jefferson’s willingness to aid religious groups with government money was that America generally was very religious and influenced by Christian teaching. Government assistance to religious groups was also a way to benefit the entire country. Today, however, the social and religious character of America is much different.

Baptists should think carefully and wisely about our relationship to government. For example, many Baptists are willing to accept government financial aid for Christian schools and other “faith-based” organizations. Such “entangling alliances” (to use George Washington’s words but in a different context) weaken the historic Baptist belief in separation of church and state. If the Christian school is a ministry of the church, then indirectly the church is accepting money from government for Christian ministry. I am involved in helping a group in our community start a Christian school in our county. We have decided not to accept Indiana’s private school vouchers and to be entirely self-funded by tuition and other financial gifts. What has surprised me is the number of Christians who do not understand the principles behind our decision. Although the Indiana state government is currently friendly toward private schools, that situation may change. The state may add more regulations and requirements for involvement in the voucher system. Then those schools and families which have become dependent on government assistance will have to make a decision about the degree of government intrusion into their school that they are willing to accept. Historically, Baptists have not wanted to be in that situation. Money is often the hook which leads to compromise.

Some may argue that accepting tax-exempt status from government is a form of accepting government assistance. And, in a way, it is. However, a larger principle exists behind tax-exempt privileges for churches. Jefferson and others recognized that the power to tax is also the power to control and even destroy. For a modern illustration of this principle, look at how the federal government is using the IRS to force people to buy health insurance. The taxing agency of the government is using its power to force certain behavior which it believes is good. In order to guarantee churches the highest degree of independence and freedom, churches are exempt from paying property taxes and some other taxes and therefore exempt from a possible attempt at control. So accepting tax-exempt status is not about accepting government financial assistance but more about recognizing the coercive power of government to attempt to control behavior and even belief.

Baptists who accept government financial assistance, even in limited forms such as vouchers, are placing themselves in a potentially dangerous situation for coercion in the future. The historic belief in separation of church and state was designed to prevent that possibility.

The principle of separation of church and state places high value on freedom of worship, expression, and belief. In the last few years, we have seen intrusions and erosion of these freedoms, particularly when homosexuality is a factor in the situation. If the Bible is clear on any topic, homosexuality is one of those topics. Despite revisionist attempts at explaining away the Biblical teaching on homosexuality and immorality, the Biblical teaching is unambiguous. Therefore those who say they believe the Bible will eventually be forced to make a decision about who they love more, the Lord God or something else.

The precedent for government forcing people to conform to social policy has already been established in America. In Bob Jones University v. United States, 461 U.S. 574 (1983) the Supreme Court ruled that the government may revoke an organization’s tax-exempt status if that group does not conform to what the government considers major public policy and that the religion clauses in the First Amendment do not protect a religious group in such a situation.

Acceptance of homosexuality and homosexual marriage is quickly becoming public policy in America. Several courts have ruled against Christians in certain situations involving homosexuals, and the Supreme Court recently refused to consider a case involving this issue, which essentially ruled in favor of the homosexual plaintiffs. Homosexual rights organizations often illustrate their arguments by stating that their cause is similar to the attempts to end racial discrimination. If our society and government accept those arguments, then the application of the Bob Jones precedent is not far away.

Baptists must adhere to the principle of separation of church and state and not weaken our historic advocacy of this principle. To do so now in what seem to be good and legitimate needs may eventually end up being an entanglement which we regret.

Wally Morris is the pastor of Charity Baptist Church, Huntington, IN, and blogs at A Moment of Charity.