Been meaning to write a post (or some posts – we’ll see how this evolves) on political government, and Christianity for a while now. Receiving inspiration from a terrific article , I believe I will start here:

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

[We] American Christians often like to point out that ‘Separation of Church and state,’ does not appear in the constitution. What DOES appear, which is surely a similar thought, is the amendment stated (in part) above.

The separation of church and state is an important topic; unfortunately, when we address it in contemporary discussions, what we usually mean is something entirely different than what the concept meant at the founding of the nation.

In contemporary thought, ‘separation of church and state’ has been taken as a slogan to cut religious morals and morays from the political sphere.  The phrase was thrown around a lot during the recent social-justice battles about the allowance of gay marriage, for example; likewise over abortion, and some of the more recent transgender rights issues.  Many proponents of morally questionable legislation have used the concept of separation of church and state as a sort of pry-bar to remove religious, or moral inhibitions from the equation, so that the secular government can be ruled… secularly.  (And un-inhibited by religion.)

However, this is is an entirely different concept of ‘seperation of church and state’ than what the early Americans meant when discussing the separation of church and state at the founding of the nation.

What ‘Separation of Church and State’ Really Means:

To understand the early Americans’ perspective of the relationship between church and state, we really need to look at England.

The Revolutionary war was the obvious catalyst for the American Constitution. The colonies’ rebellion against England which led to the Revolutionary war, and the abuses of England on the colonies were fresh in the minds of the early Americans when the constitution was drafted.

Technically speaking, England was a theocracy.  The King (or Queen) of England was also the head of the Church of England (this has been the case since Henry VIII left the Roman Catholic church).  The state church of England is the Anglican church (if you’re European, bear with me, it seems many American protestants are unaware of this), and the head of the Anglican church is not the pope but the sovereign of England.

Under this arrangement, the lines between spiritual, and religious rule were seriously blurred; one could be arrested on political charges and therefore be excommunicated from the church, or offend in a religious matter and be legally tried for it (both of which could, and did happen).  Many of the early Americans were Puritans, Quakers, and other non-Anglican protestants who had been persecuted for their religious and political non-conformity to the church of England.  (Many Quakers, for example, were legally tried as heritics (yes, you could be legally tried by the state for heresy) simply because they stopped going to Anglican church services in favor of their Quaker meetings.)

Creating a clear distinction between the political government, and religious organizations, under this pretense was an obvious necessity.  What the early Americans wanted to do was to prevent the nation from becoming a theocracy as England (and other protestant nations) had done.

Let’s consider the statement in the first Amendment, again:

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

The statement speaks of religious establishments, i.e. church organizations.  The concept did not preclude societies’ being ruled by religious morality, but simply that religious establishments would not be mingled with political authority; again, it was a failsafe against theocracy.

The intention did not preclude that religious persons, or people of strict religious convictions could not participate in politics; in fact quite the contrary the American Republic was established under the premise that wise and godly men would be elected to public office.  It was expected that Christians (as citizens) would participate in the social and political processes, and that the morality of a religious society would guide legislation.

There was made no political distinction to bar the religion, or religious morality of American society to influence politics, and quite the contrary: if religious morality does not guide our laws, and political direction, we will find ourselves in a violent, and oppressive society.

(I’d actually like to get around to discussing the concept of theocracy from a biblical perspective, but I’ll let this be part 1 in a series of posts (which may not all be consecutive) – feel free to follow, or add comments if you want a discussion.)