Thursday, July 19, 2012

Separation of Church and State

Do you believe in the separation of church and state? Perhaps you should read the small print before you answer yes or no. There are various issues involved.

During its infancy Christianity was persecuted and advocated tolerance. When Constantine the Great stopped the persecution, Christians continued to advocate toleration. But while paganism was still tolerated under Constantine, there was a strong incentive to adopt a nominal belief in Christianity. Christianity later allowed itself to become the state religion and, despite protests and conflicts of conscience, began to use governmental force to suppress dissent.

As Christianity became powerful it was important for the state to control it and the appointment of its leaders. In extreme cases  rulers put their relatives or supporters in positions of authority in the church, often despite their being uneducated and immoral. The result was a church that was worldly and corrupt. In the midst of the Middle Ages there arose a movement to correct this. They tried to make the church independent of the state and ended up claiming the church should rule the state. Ultimately, they became as worldly and corrupt as the government officials they sought to replace. The result was the Protestant Reformation.

The Reformation resulted in many different approaches. There were cases where the church was put back under control of the government. Others continued to support state churches, but worked for substantial independence from government control. Some said Christians were not allowed to hold governmental offices or be involved in the government in any way. Others opposed a state church and the imposition of beliefs by force, but did not advocate Christian non-involvement in government.  From this view the present United States government position descends. But it was an experiment with room for disagreement as to how it should be carried out in practice. Now there is a tendency for those from a secular viewpoint to advocate the total exclusion of anything Christian from influencing the government or being involved at all in public life. The question is why any Christian should be willing to accept this. It seems to be predicated on the idea that our beliefs are evil and need to be controlled.

Adjusting the rival claims of church and state is complicated, and I question if there will be a perfect solution until Christ returns. But there are some conclusions I would draw. The state running the church is a bad idea. The church running the state is a bad idea. Any group, whether religious or secular, imposing their beliefs on others by force or excluding other beliefs from the political arena is a bad idea. Resolving the remaining conflicting issues can be difficult, but  respect and consideration for the other person's convictions go a long way. History has shown us that refusal to try to reconcile the differences and find ways to live together in peace can have tragic results on all sides.


  1. Civil and religious governments should be separate but people of authentic faith should be involved in both.