An American Agenda
"Something there is that doesn't love a wall," wrote the famous New England poet Robert Frost. Certainly that is an apt description of the attitude many fundamentalist Christians have developed toward the "wall of separation" between church and state. Many Christian leaders and organizations have adopted the position that the concept of separation of church and state was never intended by the Founding Fathers and is an impediment to the righteous, godly society they are intending to create in America. As Jerry Falwell states on his Web site, "I can honestly say that I feel the leading of the Holy Spirit to answer that call and to once again mobilize people of faith to reclaim this great country as 'one nation under God.'"
Francis Schaeffer, a prominent conservative Christian activist, wrote, "Today the separation of church and state in America is used to silence the church . . . . The way the concept is used today is totally reversed from the original intent . . . . It is used today as a false political dictum in order to restrict the influence of Christian ideas . . . . To have suggested the state separated from religion and religious influence would have amazed the Founding Fathers" ("A Christian Manifesto," p. 36, 1981). Pat Robertson, in a speech in 1993, made the sweeping claim, "There is no such thing as separation of church and state in the Constitution. It is a lie of the Left and we are not going to take it anymore." In multiple, diverse areas from abortion to school prayer, from stem cell research to the war on terror, the Christian Right is attempting to use the law to impose its religious and moral agenda on all Americans.
Unfortunately, there are at least two major flaws in the Christian Right's agenda to create a righteous nation by removing the barriers against the entanglement of church and state. The first problem is that it won't work. Strict laws enforcing morality have never produced a just, righteous, or moral society. The second problem is that religious control of the state violates the principles of religious liberty that are central to the very Bible the Christian Right claims to be upholding with such zeal.
Yet one does not have to seek far for evidence that even such perfect laws did not make the people behave in a godly or moral manner. Indeed, within days after God gave the Ten Commandments to Israel and they eagerly promised to obey them, they were imitating Egyptian idol worship by lewd and drunken dancing around a golden calf that they intimidated Aaron, Moses' brother, into fashioning for them (Exodus 32). A short time later hundreds of the men of Israel were executed for indulging in blatant pagan worship and sexual orgies with the women of Moab (Numbers 25).
Things did not improve after the Israelites finally arrived in the land of Canaan. The story of how one of the sons of Gideon, the great hero, killed more than 300 of his male relatives (Judges 9), as well as the story of the Levite's concubine who was gang-raped to death by men of the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 19), is chilling evidence of the powerlessness of mere legal prohibitions to create morality in human behavior.
A monarchy did not improve Israelite morality, either. Isaiah 58 is only one of a number of passages from the prophets decrying the greed, violence, and hypocrisy of a people who couldn't understand why God did not approve of their strict religious observance. The prophet Ezekiel denounced the sexual, financial, and religious immorality of Israel in the most sweeping terms (see Ezekiel 22:8-12). But it was Jeremiah who created the most vivid image. "They were as fed horses in the morning: every one neighed after his neighbour's wife" (Jeremiah 5:8). The entire Old Testament history of the nation of Israel is a series of brief periods of reformation and renewed morality and godliness, followed by the inevitable slide back into moral degeneration.
There are numerous other historical examples of the failure of moral legislation to create a good society. The extreme orthodoxy of medieval Spain produced the Inquisition. Puritanism in America led to the killing of Quakers and often of innocent people accused of being witches. Prohibition engendered speakeasies and organized crime. And in the modern world, the repressive laws of fundamentalist Islamic states create oppression, especially of women; persecution of dissenters; and terrorism. The record of history is irrefutable testimony to the inability of human law to create moral regeneration in any society.
To the extent that the Christian Right promotes individual and corporate repentance and reformation, its aims are admirable. Voluntary, individual moral change is the only avenue to genuine moral development in a society. But to the extent that its intent is to create a moral society through legislation, its efforts are doomed to failure. True justice and morality cannot be created by legislative fiat. The morality of a society is only as great as the aggregate of the morality of its individual citizens. And individual morality cannot and should not be induced by legal coercion. It can come only as the fruit of a free moral choice. That is why the Bible repeatedly urges that the law be written in the heart. Laws that are written in statute books but not in the hearts of people are not worth the paper they're written on. Of course, inherent in the freedom to make a moral choice is the freedom to make immoral choices. That is why social morality is always so precarious, and why freedom is so costly.
Freedom of choice is the fundamental principle of God's government. Why? Because God's government is based on love, and without freedom, genuine love is not possible. Love can be won, but it can never be coerced. God knows that only through freedom of choice can created beings make genuine moral decisions. Thus only through such freedom can any true righteousness and morality exist in individuals or in society.
Freedom of choice cannot endure when religion becomes entangled with the government. Government power is inherently coercive. Coercive power is necessary for a government, because it is the role of government to restrain the evil tendencies of human nature—crime, fraud, foreign aggression, and other threats to peace and social order. As Paul writes, the ruler "beareth not the sword in vain," but uses it to punish offenders against the law (Romans 13:4). But in the ideal government coercive power is strictly limited and is exercised only when necessary to achieve these goals. When the coercive power of government becomes entangled with intensely private and personal concerns such as religion, its power inevitably will tend to restrict individual freedom.
Therefore, freedoms essential to a healthy society, including freedom of religion, flourish only if they are outside the realm of government control. That is why the first 10 amendments to the Constitution (the Bill of Rights) are written in the negative: "Congress shall not . . ." The Founders of our country wisely realized that there are some essential areas of life, such as religion, free speech, one's home, etc., in which the government should meddle as little as possible. Because of the very nature of government, whenever it becomes involved in any way with religious belief or practice, it begins to apply coercive force, which is completely incompatible with liberty of conscience.
Jesus and the apostles clearly articulated this principle in their teachings and demonstrated it by their example. In Jesus' every dealing with civil government, He indicated that He supported earthly, governmental power and did not intend to supplant it with some sort of "spiritual" substitute. During the time of Jesus, Israel was a part of the Roman Empire. The Roman government was bloody, corrupt, and religiously oppressive. The Roman rulers had no respect for the Jewish religion or its services. Despite its knowledge of the Jewish prohibition on public nudity, the Romans built a gymnasium for nude sports in full view of the Jewish temple. This was extremely offensive to the Jews.
Moreover, the Roman government had very little respect for human life. King Herod was a psychopath who killed his own wife and several of his sons, not to mention all the young boys in Bethlehem after Jesus' birth. Jesus refers in Luke 13:1 to a group of Jewish worshippers who were slaughtered by Pilate, the Roman governor, while they were sacrificing in the temple. Rome oppressed the people in other ways as well. It allowed its tax collectors unlimited power to extort money above and beyond the required taxes, and allowed Roman soldiers the right to force any civilian to walk a mile with him and carry his gear.
The Jewish people were expecting that the Messiah would overthrow Roman rule and reestablish the traditional Jewish theocracy. But Jesus disappointed them. Far from seeking to overthrow Rome, Jesus respected Roman law and rule and urged His followers to do likewise. On several occasions Jesus evaded attempts by the religious leaders and others to trap Him into advocating defiance of Roman law. When He was asked if the Jews should pay tribute to Caesar, instead of denying the Roman right to levy taxes, He said, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's" (Matthew 22:21).
The woman caught in adultery, whom the Pharisees presented to Jesus, was yet another attempt to trap Him into expressing disrespect for Roman law (see John 8). Jewish law commanded that anyone caught committing adultery should be stoned to death. The Roman government, however, did not allow the Jews to perform executions and would not impose the death penalty for infractions of Jewish law. Once again Jesus refused to give them the answer they were hoping for.
When Jesus' overzealous followers attempted to make Him king by force after the feeding of the 5,000, He quickly removed Himself and sent His disciples away. Some of the last words of Jesus' life affirmed that He had no intent to establish an earthly government to challenge Rome. When He was asked by Pilate what He had done, He said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight . . ." (John 18:36, NIV). Even Jesus' worst enemies, using false witnesses, could not present convincing evidence to the Roman authorities that Jesus had ever attempted to rebel against Rome. Pilate, most definitely not a ruler known for his mercy or leniency, found Him innocent of all such charges.
After Jesus' death, His followers were confronted with a Roman government that was even more hostile to them than it was to the Jews. In the early days of the Christian church, believers were persecuted and martyred by the thousands. Still, the apostles did not teach rebellion against government but, like Jesus, counseled obedience to civil law. Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, "The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves" (Romans 13:1, 2, NIV).
Peter was more concise, "Fear God. Honour the King" (1 Peter 2:17).
Thus Jesus and the apostles articulated a fundamental principle regarding the Christian's relationship to government. Human government, however unsavory, has a legitimate right to maintain order, establish civil laws, and regulate worldly and social affairs. Christians are obligated to obey the governmental authority, except when it comes into conflict with one's duty to God. Christians are not authorized to rebel against government under other circumstances, even when the government is unrighteous and corrupt. Thus seeking to control the power of civil government for the purpose of forcefully imposing one's view of religion or morality on society is not a legitimate mission for Christians.
Furthermore, the God who grants us freedom of conscience expects us to extend it to others was well. Thus true Christians are obligated to do whatever they can, not only to maintain their own freedom to believe and practice their beliefs, but to protect the freedom of others to do the same, even those whose beliefs they see as wrong, heretical, or even dangerous to society. The freedom to be "right" is meaningless without the corresponding freedom to be "wrong."
A recent decision of the Supreme Court clearly illustrates this type of Christian obligation. On May 31, 2005, the Court handed down a decision upholding a federal statute that provides for religious accommodation for prisoners. The Boston Globe reported, "The Supreme Court yesterday unanimously upheld a law requiring prisons to provide worship time and ceremonial materials for a wide range of inmate religious practices, in a case that saw evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews passionately back the rights of a Satanist, a witch, and members of a white-supremacist sect."
Despite the strange and distinctly unsavory character (from a Christian point of view) of the religions represented in this case, people of many faiths supported the rights of the plaintiffs because they know that diminishing the rights of one group will eventually diminish the rights of everyone. The result of this passionate support was a unanimous decision upholding the law from a Supreme Court that is deeply divided and rarely issues unanimous decisions. This decision is a great step forward for the legal right to religious accommodation, which is a right the Court has generally not viewed favorably over the past several years.
This recent incident vividly illustrates the immense power of conviction when it is channeled into preserving freedom rather than limiting it. If the people and organizations that are working so tirelessly to tear down the "wall" and impose their version of religion and morality on the country would instead devote their immense energy, resources, and combined political clout to make sure that the rights of everyone to practice (or not to practice) their beliefs were protected and not obstructed by the law, we would be much closer to having the kind of government that Jesus would approve. Insofar as the Christian Right is advocating individual and corporate repentance and reformation, they are performing a valuable service for society. But to the extent that they attempt to use the power of the law and of government to impose their moral agenda on those with different moral and social beliefs, they are violating the principles of the God they desire to serve.
Sonja DeWitt is a civil rights attorney living in Stoneham, Massachusetts.
*Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright
Article Author: Sonja DeWitt
Sonja DeWitt is a lawyer with over twenty years of experience handling cases of discrimination, including religious discrimination cases. She has been involved in political advocacy regarding religious liberty issues for several years, including meeting with the staffs of members of Congress, organizing an interfaith lobbying effort, and writing legal briefs. She received the A.T. Jones Award from the North American Religious Liberty Association for her work with religious liberty, and has been published in Liberty Magazine. She currently handles cases for federal agencies and blogs about faith, politics and social justice at voicesfromthewilderness.net.