Immaculate Misconceptions

Melissa Rogers May/June 1998 "Tear down the wall! Tear down the wall!" the crowd shouted, inspired by Alabama governor Fob James's remarks at a rally in support of Judge Roy Moore's practice of opening sessions with prayer and of displaying the Ten Commandments in his courtroom.

"The Supreme Court's 'wall of separation,'" the governor told the crowd, "reminds me of another wall of separation to protect Communist regimes so evil they had to erect walls to keep their people in. On one side of the Berlin Wall was freedom; on the other was tyranny. We have a wall of separation in America erected not by the American people but by a few elitist judges."

No doubt many churchgoing, God-loving, self-proclaimed Christians made up a majority of those cheering Governor James as he attacked separation of church and state.

These same Christians, however, weren't shouting against the kind of church-state separation that prevents the government from interfering with their religious beliefs, practices, and ministries. No way. They don't shout against that kind.

What kind, then, do they shout against?

First, they shout against the kind of separationism that they believe dampens their evangelistic efforts.

Judge Moore's case is a perfect example. The judge says that ceasing official court prayer and removing the Ten Commandments would violate his obligation to spread the Christian faith. Now, it is true, the Bible does encourage Judge Moore (and all Christians) to spread the faith; but it's just as true that the Bible doesn't give much encouragement to use the power of the government to do so.

Look at Jesus Himself. He constantly resisted the temptation to use government machinery to produce spiritual conversion. When, for instance, Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilate (the Roman ruler who questioned Him before the crucifixion), Pilate asked, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered: "My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world" (John 18:33, 36).* His words clearly express a principle that divides secular power from the work of advancing His kingdom.

Jesus also shunned earthly power after performing a miracle near the Sea of Tiberias. After feeding 5,000 people with just five loaves of bread and two fish, Jesus perceived that the crowd was "about to come and take him by force to make him king." He responded to their advances by withdrawing again to the mountain by himself" (John 6:15). Again, Christ shunned anything political.

These few scriptural examples are consistent with Jesus' most explicit teaching on church-state separation. "Render . . . to Caesar the things that are Caesar's," He said, "and to God the things that are God's" (Matthew 22:21). With one statement Jesus separated and legitimized civil and religious authority, while encouraging Christians to recognize the difference between the two.

But was Jesus a great evangelist? Of course He was. There is no conflict between evangelism and church-state separation. Christians are called to be God's prophets. Nothing about church-state separation requires Christians to make anything less than a full commitment to their faith. Separation merely insures that coercive civil power will not be used to carry out sacred missions. By shunning the use of governmental power to advance religion, each person is allowed to respond to God freely and meaningfully, rather than being a captive audience of official courtroom prayer or paying compulsory taxes to aid religion.

When church and state operate as a joint venture, Christians often drive away the very people they are interested in reaching. For example, many Jews and Muslims have searing memories of being ostracized when their public school-sponsored prayers or other Christian activities-experiences that are hardly conducive toward making them followers of Christ.

Moreover, government-approved Christianity rarely makes converts. The motto "In God We Trust" on our money hasn't won many (if any) to Christ. By calling for the right of Judge Moore to post the Ten Commandments in a courtroom, a congressional representative may save their seat, but not their (or anyone else's) soul. A nonsectarian, nonproselytizing prayer before a legislative session may offend no one, but it doesn't usually inspire anyone either.

Another form of separation that Christians shout against is the kind that seems to them unfair and overly legalistic. The following quotes are typical among Christians today:

"Why can't official prayers be offered in courtrooms or the Ten Commandments posted in solitary grandeur on the courthouse wall?"

"It's tradition, it's comfortable. Why can't the ACLU just keep their hands off?"

"Who is hurt by a few prayers said by schoolchildren in the morning before class?"

Part of the problem is simple misunderstanding. When judges prevent official prayer in a courtroom or a public school or the posting of the Ten Commandments on a courtroom wall, they do not rob anyone of these religious practices; nor are these practices driven out of the public square. Prayers can be offered silently by everyone, any time, anywhere-even by a judge in a courtroom. Citizens generally can hold religious rallies and pray aloud in public parks as long as such parks are open to other free-speech activities. The Ten Commandments can be posted in every home and church in Alabama and the rest of the nation. Further, the Ten Commandments can even be displayed in a courtroom if part of a larger display of historical items not intended to advance religion.

Judge Charles Price, who prohibited Judge Moore's Ten Commandments display, explained that contrary to the beliefs of those protesting his decision, "my ruling guaranteed their religious freedom-the religious freedom from public officials." Judge Price, (an AME Sunday school teacher), said that the Ten Commandments "are not in peril. The Ten Commandments have been here since God gave them to Moses. How can you threaten the Ten Commandments? It's God's word."

Judge Price cogently observed that government sponsorship of religion seems all right when "it's your religion, but tomorrow it will be somebody else's religion, and then we're going to have problems."

A recent story in The Washington Post told of a 10-mile stretch of highway in Montgomery County, Maryland, dotted with nearly three dozen congregations: three Catholic churches, one Ukrainian Orthodox, two Seventh-day Adventist, two Jehovah's Witness, 21 Mainline Protestant and Baptist, one synagogue, one mosque, one Buddhist temple, one Hindu temple, and one Unitarian church. This is only a small illustration of the continuing diversification of faith in our country. Thus if Christians support government endorsement of religion, then they must be ready to support government endorsement of all these faiths, and more, in public schools and with tax dollars. If the government can't endorse the thousands of religions in this country (and let's face it, it can't), it will have to pick and choose which religions get an official stamp of approval, possibly triggering the kind of unrest that has often made life miserable in countries where the government endorses some religions and not others.

Finally, the last kind of separation that Christians shout against is the kind that they fear leads to moral anarchy. If the government is agnostic or neutral toward Christianity, won't morality just go to the dogs? Hasn't it already?

Christians who have this fear should examine the many polls that demonstrate that the United States has produced a more vibrant religious landscape than countries in which church-state alliances are common. Keeping church and state separate in the United States had produced more, not less, religious activism, which ideally tends to create a more moral society. Whatever the reasons for America's moral problems, they can't be found in church-state separation. A look at Ireland or Bosnia shows that morality and peace are better ensured when the government stays out of the business of endorsing some religions over others.

The only way Christians will change America and help reverse its moral slide is through practice of the radical Christianity that Jesus taught-loving our neighbor as ourselves, blessing those who curse us, serving God rather than mammon, and being merciful, pure in heart, and meek (Matthew 5-7). Conventional wisdom and public piety were never Jesus' answers; they shouldn't be ours.

In the end, separation of church and state doesn't hamper evangelism, needlessly disrupt our traditions, or unleash immorality. Instead, church-state separation models biblical imperatives: that Christians keep the earthly kingdom and God's kingdom separate and respond to God with a free heart and a joyous spirit.

Thus, however handy, Governor James's Berlin Wall analogy just doesn't apply. The wall of separation, far from being oppressive, has been a wall of protection for everyone, including those Christians who cheered the governor's attack on some of the very principles that gave these people the religious freedom to stand there and shout against what they know not in the first place.

Melissa Rogers is associate general counsel at the Baptist Joint Committee in Washington, D.C.

Article Author: Melissa Rogers