The separation of church and state does not directly appear in the Constitution of the United States. Rather, the phrase represents an understanding of the First Amendment, popularized (but not invented) by a correspondence between a Baptist church and President Thomas Jefferson.
In 1801, the Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut wrote a letter to Jefferson, claiming that Connecticut’s outdated state constitution didn’t prohibit the government from meddling with religious affairs through legislature. The state was abusing that lack of prohibition, despite the freedom of religion offered to all citizens in the Constitution of the United States.
The letter from the church said, “Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals, that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions, [and] that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor. But sir, our constitution of government is not specific. Our ancient charter, together with the laws made coincident therewith, were adapted as the basis of our government at the time of our revolution.”
Thomas Jefferson’s famous reply helped create the often misunderstood “wall” that is the separation of church and state:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”
Let’s take a look at why Thomas Jefferson interpreted the First Amendment this way. The whole amendment states:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
The establishment clause (the section that says, “no law respecting an establishment of religion”) has, historically, been broadly applied to the federal government, which in turn applies to state governments through the due process clause (which states that no person shall be “deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law”) of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court ultimately decides how far these protections reach.
It’s worth noting, here, that many of the colonists who settled in North America (perhaps most notably, the Puritans) were actually fleeing state-established religions—the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church—when they came here. The unification of church and state historically resulted in the persecution of those who did not share the religious beliefs of the state. The cultural and denominational melting pot of America would not allow the formation of another government that dictated what its citizens could believe.
Thus, the “wall” Jefferson interpreted in the amendment was to protect the diversity of beliefs in the United States and to prevent the perpetuation of persecution for religious beliefs.
Today, however, some people see this wall as the source of persecution in the United States.
Why is the separation of church and state so confusing?
Occasionally, two clauses within the First Amendment arguably conflict with each other. The establishment clause (“[the government] shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”) and the free exercise clause (“prohibiting the free exercise therof;”) have a sort of give and take relationship.
Michael McConnell, director of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center puts it this way in Religion and the Constitution:
“If there is a constitutional requirement for accommodation of religious conduct, it will most likely be found in the Free Exercise Clause. Some say, though, that it is a violation of the Establishment Clause for the government to give any special benefit or recognition of religion. In that case, we have a First Amendment in conflict with itself—the Establishment Clause forbidding what the Free Exercise Clause requires.”
The diversity of religious beliefs in America brought about these government-protected rights. Those same rights both prevent the government from restricting religious beliefs and force the government to sometimes restrict religious practices.
The famous Reynolds vs. United States supreme court case confirmed, “Congress cannot pass a law for the government of the Territory which shall prohibit the free exercise of religion. The first amendment to the Constitution expressly forbids such legislation.” However, the court still ruled in favor of the United States (maintaining that polygamy is illegal, even if your religion encourages it), adding a new layer to our interpretation of the First Amendment:
“Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious beliefs and opinions, they may with practices.”
The court recognized the slippery slope of permitting religious practices to overrule federal law: if they provided constitutional protection for polygamy, it would have to provide those same protections for far more harmful religious practices, including human sacrifice. If the Christian, the Muslim, or the Jew is exempt, so is the Satanist.
If a person’s religious practices conflict with federal or state law, one could (and inevitably, would) argue that any accommodations or exceptions by the government signify an established religion—and showing legal favoritism would at least represent a dangerous step towards one. Accommodations and exceptions for religious practices that violate laws would have to be extended to all religious practices that violate laws, or else none of them. And if they are extended to all religious practices, which laws remain set in stone?
“The state” has been performing this delicate dance with an increasingly diverse and loosely defined “church” ever since.
One of the greatest sources of contention is the direct connection between beliefs and practices. The state can only restrict practices to the extent that they are not also restricting beliefs, and the church can only advocate for the exercise of religious practices to the extent that they don’t use the state to impose their beliefs on others.
In What Is the Relationship between Church and State?, R.C. Sproul says, “We boast as Americans that we live in a free country, and that’s true, relatively speaking; but no people in any land have ever lived in an atmosphere of complete freedom. Every law that is ever enacted by any legislative body restricts someone’s freedom.”
What do Christians say about the separation of church and state?
R.C. Sproul says that the separation of church and state is a “mythological concept.” While most Christians haven’t adopted this label, the sentiment is echoed in many Christian explanations of the phrase and its implications. Sproul says, “this phrase does not occur in the country’s founding documents. It is not found in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or the Bill or Rights. It comes from a remark made by Thomas Jefferson about the principles that he believed were implied in the founding documents of the United States.”
The reality is that this phrase represents how, historically, the United States has interpreted the words that actually do appear in the constitution. The phrase was an attempt to provide a simple, clear expression for the rights inherent in the legal language of the First Amendment. Unfortunately, it has been neither simple nor clear, even within the court system.
Similarly, “the Trinity” never appears in the Bible: the Trinity is simply how the church, historically, has interpreted Jesus’ relationship to God and the Holy Spirit. Within Christianity, the Trinity is the agreed upon understanding of the God-Jesus-Spirit relationship inherent throughout Scripture.
For Christians, the problem with the separation of church and state comes from our complicated relationship with governing authorities. We do not share the same perception of this relationship as the government.
“For centuries,” Sproul says, “the church has had to carefully examine its role in society—especially when that society does not officially hold to a Christian worldview.”
Sproul says purpose of government is to restrain evil. The government functions to preserve human life, protect property, and execute justice largely through creating standards, agreements, and contracts.
However, “All governments, no matter what structure they manifest,” he says, “are representative of fallen humanity because governments are made up of sinful people.” No government is capable of performing its role perfectly (and some are much better at it than others).
Something as subtle as a shift in ideology can drastically alter the way a government executes each of the functions Sproul outlines. Even within Christianity, there are a variety of perspectives as to what a government that represents Christian values would look like. Add to that an ideological soup of secularism, denominational differences, and other religions—all of which have to receive the same religious freedoms—and you’ve got a government that’s going to look vastly different from what most Christians would prefer.
While Christians see the state as an institution established by God (Romans 13:1–2), the state (in the U.S.) actually functions an institution serving an ambiguous, dynamic “greater good.”
“The church is called to be a critic of the state when the state fails to obey its mandate under God,” Sproul says. “When the church complains about the abortion laws in America, the church is not asking the state to be the church. The church is asking the state to be the state. It is simply asking the state to do its God-ordained job.”
What happens when the church and the state conflict?
Romans 13:1–2 says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”
When Christians disobey the government, we are, essentially, disobeying God. But what about when God’s commands conflict with the commands given by the authority he has appointed?
“At times,” Sproul says, “Human rulers require people to do things that God forbids, or forbid them from doing what God commands. The principle is very simple. If any ruler—a governing official or body, school teacher, boss, or military commander—commands you to do something God forbids or forbids you from doing something God commands, not only may you disobey, but you must disobey. If it comes down to a choice like this, you must obey God.”
But this understanding doesn’t give Christians free license to disobey the government as they see fit. Far from it, this understanding of the relationship between authorities means that every choice to obey or disobey must be filtered through God’s commands (and probably, their summation in Matthew 22:37–40 or Romans 13:9–10).
We do not have free reign to claim what God commands without consulting his Word and critically interpreting it. Keep in mind that when Paul wrote Romans 13, the Christians he was talking to were under the leadership of Rome. As Sproul puts it, “He’s telling people to be submissive to a government that would eventually execute him.”
The way we respond to authority has serious implications. “We are obedient to human institutions,” Sproul says, “As a means of bearing witness to the ultimate seat of cosmic authority.”
He goes on to say, “There is a fundamental obligation of the Christian to be a model of civil obedience. We as the people of God are called upon to be as obedient as we possibly can in good conscience to the powers that be.”
The state is in a constant balancing act of not elevating particular belief systems through restricting religious practices. As a result, the church is also in a constant balancing act of determining how best to obey the highest authority, filtering the commands of the government through the commands of God.
“We are called to respect, honor, pray for, and be in subjection to our earthly authorities,” Sproul says, “But the minute we exalt the earthly authority over the authority of Christ, we have betrayed Him, and we have committed treason against the King of kings. His authority is higher than the authority of the president of the United States or Congress or the king of Spain or any ruler anywhere else.”
Don’t let God’s place in the hierarchy lead you to believe you can disobey the president—whoever that may be—simply on the basis that you disagree with his or her politics.
“If you don’t like the president of the United States,” Sproul says, “Remember that the One who cast the deciding ballot in his election was almighty God.”
What does the Bible say about church and state?
There are numerous passages about the relationship between Christians and the government. Romans 13:1–14, 1 Peter 2:13, and 2 Thessalonians 2:3 are the main passages where Peter and Paul directly discuss our relationship to authority. Sproul says, “It is important to note that Peter and Paul do not speak of the authorities to be obeyed as necessarily being godly authorities. But they do say that God has appointed them.”
In Matthew 28:18–20, Jesus tells us that all authority has been given to him, and he commands us to teach others what he has taught us.
Acts 4:18–20 gives us a clear example of the authority of man conflicting with Jesus’ final command in Matthew 28. Peter and John are told not to teach in the name of Jesus. They respond, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”
To see more examples and learn about how they apply to you today, check out R.C. Sproul’s book, What Is the Relationship between Church and State?—part of the free Crucial Questions Series.