Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Separation of Church and State

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

-          First Amendment, US Bill of Rights

This post has nothing to do with this.

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.

-          Thomas Jefferson, 1802

This post also has nothing to do with this.

Foreshadowing Jefferson, Roger Williams, a Baptist Dissenter and founder of Providence, Rhode Island, would write in 1644:

When they [the Church] have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the Candlestick, etc., and made His Garden a wilderness as it is this day. And that therefore if He will ever please to restore His garden and paradise again, it must of necessity be walled in peculiarly unto Himself from the world, and all that be saved out of the world are to be transplanted out of the wilderness of the World.

This post has something, in a manner, to do with Williams’ words.  Williams was saying that “mixing church and state corrupted the church, that when one mixes religion and politics, one gets politics.”

Williams’ compact for Rhode Island was unique, at least at the time.  It was unique for what it didn’t say:

It did not propose to build a model of God’s kingdom on earth, as did Massachusetts. Nor did it even claim to advance God’s will, as did the founding documents of every other European settlement in North and South America, whether English, Spanish, Portuguese or French. The compact did not even ask God’s blessing. It made no mention of God at all.

Was Williams an ungodly man?  Hardly.  He was previously considered appropriate to be offered a post in the Boston church, “the greatest such position in English America.”  He refused, not differing at all on theology, but differing on the purpose of government.  The colony’s leaders believed it the role of the state to prevent error in religion; Williams felt otherwise:

Williams believed that preventing error in religion was impossible, for it required people to interpret God’s law, and people would inevitably err. He therefore concluded that government must remove itself from anything that touched upon human beings’ relationship with God. A society built on the principles Massachusetts espoused would lead at best to hypocrisy, because forced worship, he wrote, “stincks in God’s nostrils.” At worst, such a society would lead to a foul corruption—not of the state, which was already corrupt, but of the church.

I didn’t begin this post thinking it would lead me to Roger Williams.  Such is the wonder of this journey – it opens new windows not only over months or years of learning, but even over minutes.

I am still finding that I might not sufficiently clear about what I see as the proper role for Christianity to play in a society that is after liberty.  Perhaps I am also not as clear about what I mean when I write of God’s kingdom on earth.

Sometimes it is easier to explain what is meant by expanding on what isn’t meant.  I do not mean a Christian nation; I do not mean electing Christian leaders; I do not mean to advocate for moral laws.  I recognize, as Williams did, that such involvement by Christians towards their government – certainly since the Enlightenment, if not the Reformation (and I don’t dream of turning back any clocks) – will only corrupt Christianity.

I also don’t believe that Christianity has no role to play in shaping society.  Please note this in the context of what was written in the previous paragraph: this doesn’t mean a Christian nation, it doesn’t mean electing Christian leaders, it doesn’t mean passing moral laws.

It means what I have written in this post:

For example: feed the poor, care for the homeless, visit those in prison.  Provide a vision contrary to that which society offers: one of love, of meaning, of purpose. …Further, do something about abortion … open and support crisis pregnancy centers, support young women struggling with this decision; where necessary, ensure the possibility of adoption.

Act, don’t lobby; doing is much more meaningful than voting.  Do this without any involvement with the state.  I do not suggest petitioning the government for funds to do these things, nor to ask the government to do these in place of Christians acting.  Do not tear down, in Williams’ words, “the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”  It only corrupts Christianity.  And it has.

I have also written about confronting the state, speaking truth to power:

A unified voice is necessary to end overseas adventurism, put a stop to torture and indefinite detention, end the incarceration of non-violent criminals, stand up against the horrendous federal court system, put an end to the robbery of central banking, maximize the opportunity for parents to educate their children as they see fit.

Unfortunately, Christians are too often on the wrong side of these issues.  By wrong side, I mean that Christians have been corrupted by the state.  There is nothing Biblical about any of these actions.

Of course, the primary role of Christian leaders is to shepherd and grow the flock.  Nothing I say should suggest otherwise.  But this isn’t all we are called to do.  There is nothing in what I have suggested above that is contrary to Biblical teaching, and everything that I have written above is consistent with Biblical teaching and / or consistent with traditional Christian practice.

I am not after turning back clocks; I am after returning to center: The earliest Christians certainly did preach the message of salvation, but this is not all that they did. Nor did they ignore all of those outside of their four walls.  Christians are called to love – this means to act; Christians are called to speak truth to power. This has existed from the beginning for Jesus, certainly since Pentecost for the rest of us.

Now, why did I begin writing this post if it wasn’t to explore Williams?  My reasons are to be found in a lecture delivered by Fr. Gregory Pine, O.P. – What is Law? A Thomistic Perspective:

Law makes known to us what is good, and encourages us to pursue it.

-          Thomas Aquinas

Law is meant for the cultivation of virtue.

If I understand the meaning of these quotes (and it is possible that I do not), this is where I part ways with this traditional understanding.  As regular readers know, I do not advocate for laws against non-aggressive actions – I do not want laws that attempt to force us to virtue; in fact, in most cases I see such laws as immoral.  If someone wants to drink himself to a stupor, I find it against natural law but I don’t want to see him in prison.  I have written specifically on this point here.

It is the job of civil authorities (government, private insurance companies, whatever) to deal with matters of aggression.  Formal physical punishment – whether prisons, fines, etc. – belongs in this realm.  It is the job of other institutions – and this is precisely where I see Christian churches playing a role – to deal with what can be described as non-aggressive moral transgressions.


I know that Roger Williams was concerned about the involvement of the state in theological disputes and understandings – that this would pollute Christianity and not the state.  I am merely extending this: the state (government) must not play a role in non-aggressive moral transgression.  This has also polluted Christianity (and made it impotent) and further aggrandized the state.

What is my separation of church and state?  The state (if we are to have one), or some entity with a similar role, deals with physical aggressions against person and property.  The church has two responsibilities (besides leading people to Christ):  first, it takes full responsibility – from teaching to setting an example – of other violations of the natural law.  Second, it speaks truth to (state) power.

With this separation, we might actually have some chance to move toward real liberty.


We might find further light in the following:

Providence residents were among the first Patriots to spill blood in the lead-up to the American Revolutionary War during the Gaspee Affair of 1772 [eighteen months before the more famous Boston Tea Party], and Rhode Island was the first of the Thirteen Colonies to renounce its allegiance to the British Crown on May 4, 1776. It was also the last of the Thirteen States to ratify the United States Constitution on May 29, 1790, once assurances were made that a Bill of Rights would become part of the Constitution.

The effect of Williams’ views on the immediately subsequent generations of Rhode Islanders may not mean everything when it comes to liberty, but my guess is his views don’t mean nothing.


  1. Ironically, (or not) it was Bush who brought in "faith based charity" allowing the churches to come feed at the trough and turning them into NGOs, an Orwellian term for government organizations.

    A huge industry sprang up in the US where churches were educated how to come get them some of that money. It's really gross when you think about it.

    On the matter of separation of church and state:

    There are many commentators on the first amendment who claim that the amendment was to prevent the states from creating their own religions or backing certain religions as the Crown had done - it had renounced the Roman Catholic church and created the Anglican church and had persecuted those Christians who didn't accept this new church.

    But the grammar of the first amendment is especially important. It says that the government shall make no law "respecting an establishment of religion."

    What that means is that Congress can make no law, at all, regarding existing religions. 'Establishment' is a noun, not a verb and thus Congress can't even determine what is or isn't a religion. The establishments already exist, and there is no legitimate law which attempts to create, destroy or regulate religion. The grammar was intentional. All religious establishments are created by man and his God. The point was to remove all government authority from religious decisions. It hasn't been treated that way of course.

  2. I don't have a FB account but have been checking the Catholic Diocese of Lafayette's account to see when they will deem us worthy to enter under their roofs again. Two of the most recent posts were about Pope Francis's environmental gobble-gook Laudato Si fill out your Census form!

  3. I attended Mass at a church of the Archdiocese of Detroit on Sunday for the first time since March 24th. I fully expected directed seating in staggered pews and to don the obligatory muzzle.

    A pleasant surprise awaited. Worshipers filed in, virtually all muzzle-free. They sat wherever and with whomever they wanted. Neither worshipers, ushers, acolytes, nor priest made any pretense of "social-distancing."

    I'd say somewhere between 125 and 150 souls were in attendance. I saw three masks and one bandanna. It was almost as if the intervening nine weeks did not happen. Needless to say, I was fairly heartened.

    1. Wonderful. Let's hope it sticks when the second-wave is invented.

  4. I knew from history lessons at school so many years ago that Roger Williams had left Massachusetts under pressure, but was always left with the impression that he was a rebel, radical, and revolutionary. After reading your essay and the linked Smithsonian article, I have a much greater understanding of the man.

    More of us should be like him. I should be more like him, but it is too easy to take life as it comes rather than to shape life to one's convictions. In order to follow William's example, a person must be willing to give up his life for what he believes to be the truth...and stick with it no matter what. Most of us, including myself, pay lip service to this concept, but when the chips are down and it becomes costly and/or inconvenient, we cave in and compromise.

    "When they [the Church] have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself,..."

    What is interesting about this quote is not that the Church is opening gaps in the wall, allowing the State to enter the Garden, but that God Himself puts in an appearance and actually lends a hand in breaking down the wall. It is as if God is saying, "You want to live this way? All right, then, take the full measure of it!" In other words, sow the wind, reap the whirlwind, which is what we are now experiencing.

    John Milton's epic poem, Paradise Lost, put it well:
    "So clomb this first grand thief into God's fold;
    So since into his church lewd hirelings climb."

    The only difference between the time when Satan leaped the wall into the Garden at the very beginning and now is that the current inhabitants of the Garden are breaking down the wall from the inside, allowing the lewd hirelings easy access.

    1. Roger, I had the same impression of Williams until I worked through this post - like he was some kind of radical malcontent. I guess he was, but not in the way portrayed.

      Examples like Williams' are memorable because they are so rare. In many ways (but not every way) I find it easier to "write" than "do."

      As to your further observations, very insightful - God is saying "have at it." Kind of like when Israel wanted a king: you asked for it, you got it.

    2. Bionic,

      The second half of the quote is just as pungent as the first. And as potent.

      "And that therefore if He will ever please to restore His garden and paradise again, it must of necessity be walled in peculiarly unto Himself from the world, and all that be saved out of the world are to be transplanted out of the wilderness of the World."

      If God pleases to restore His garden… What if He doesn’t please? Where will we be then? Admittedly, Williams’ Calvinism is showing through here, but maybe we shouldn’t presume too much about God’s pleasure. Any go, if God decides to restore the Garden, it is His people who will be doing the hard, dirty, sweaty work. See Nehemiah, for example.

      Every person who participates in the endeavor will have his own section to build. Maybe it would be better to say ‘rebuild’. Everyone will have to do his part. Everyone will have to cooperate. Everyone will have to be concerned with the end result. Will it be perfect and forever impregnable? Not as long as sinful man has anything to do with it, but the lessons of history and past experience should teach us what mistakes NOT to make again.

      This is not just a public works project. In fact, most of the work will probably go unnoticed and unreported, but will happen within the daily lives of innumerable Christians who are “building” their own “wall” against the world. In fact, it is these persons who will be the stones, mortar, and rebar for the new, stronger, higher Wall. People who are no different than you or I.

      “In many ways (but not every way) I find it easier to "write" than "do."”

      I repeat, everyone has his own section to work on. Do what you do best and let someone else do the rest. There is a place for jacks-of-all-trades and there is a place for specialists. As far as your writing goes, you, sir, are a specialist.

    3. Thank you, Roger.

      Your words here remind me: we start with our own family (raise children properly); our community (might mean neighborhood, might mean church group, might mean those we work for or who work for us, might mean others we deal with). If we handle these well, the rest is gravy.