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When church and state unite

One of the remarkable things about the U.S. Constitution is its intentional effort to hold in tension the boundaries between organized religion and the secular state. The concept itself is often attributed to the phrase “wall of separation between church and state,” as written in Thomas Jefferson’s famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802; yet its underlying theory and daily practice is often misconstrued in our culture today.

To be sure, while Jefferson was concerned that there ought to be a so-called “wall” of separation between church and state, his true concern wasn’t that individual and corporate religious expression would be harmful, but that state-sponsored control of that expression would be. The danger, of course, is obvious. When religiously inclined individuals or groups advocate for particular laws and ordinances, they do nothing less than their secularly inclined neighbors in promoting their values in the public square. But when a state or nation co-opts a particular religious organization’s viewpoints and attitudes, and seeks to impose them upon others within the state, regardless of their willingness to agree, the danger to individual liberty and freedom of conscience soon appears. This helps explain why the original framers of the Constitution sought to amend the document to include a provision that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” for they knew the danger to religious freedom that comes when one religion gains power over all others through the coercive control of the state.

Yet, there are perfectly good moments when, in a nation such as ours, church and state unite. One place where it worked out particularly well was in the formation of our own nation. Without the influence of our Founding Father’s Judeo-Christian values, in combination with the philosophy of natural law, these words in the Declaration of Independence would never have been written: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Another place it works out is in the ballot box, when men and women of faith express their worldview through exercising their commitment to participate in the body politic and to vote their consciences. Whether it is an endorsement or rejection of some proposed legislation or the selection of a candidate for office, when faith unites in the marking of a ballot or the pulling of a lever to cast a vote, religion and the state are properly joined.

Where the true danger exists is when laws and policies of government are construed in such a way as to unreasonably curtail religious freedom and expression or curtail religious practice, a danger, I would submit that is all too common in our nation today. I shall leave it to you to determine what those intrusions may be, as they are commonly reported in the daily reports. Being blessed to have the privilege to live in a nation whose very core is devoted to the protection of religious freedom, we would all do well to be watchful and to push back through protest and vote any attempt to unjustly infringe upon a religious community’s practices, so long as they do not endanger others.

Ultimately, it behooves us all to be watchful for ourselves but also for those religious entities with which we might disagree, for if the state can limit them we might well be next.

William Lee Kinney is pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Washington.