Tackling the Relationship Between the Church and the State

By Steven Griffin
Aug 1, 2007

A Summary of The Divided States of America? by Richard Land

Most conservatives think we have taken God out of this country and we need to put Him back in, asserting that God is on our side and taking patriotism to an idolatrous level. Meanwhile, most liberals think separation of church and state requires that God should not have anything to do with American politics and public life. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, writes why both views are wrong in his book, The Divided States of America?, and why these views will lead to a “furtherance of the shouting matches that rage between the extreme worldviews on each side, resulting in lots of heat but very little light.”

Dr. Land points out that while America was not founded as a “Christian nation,” it was founded by people operating out of a Judeo-Christian worldview. The founders clearly intended the Constitution to provide a balance in the relationship between religiously informed morality and public virtue, and a separation of the “institution” of the church and the “institution” of the state. George Washington in his farewell address said that religion and morality are indispensable to political prosperity.

Dr. Land traces the history of the phrase “separation of church and state” back to colonist Roger Williams in 1636 who claimed that the wall was to protect the garden of the church from the wilderness of the state and not the other way around. When newly-elected President Thomas Jefferson used the phrase to address a group of oppressed Baptists in Connecticut in 1802, it was at a time when Connecticut had a state tax-supported religion (Congregationalist).

Governments can take one of three distinct approaches to church-state relations, Dr. Land writes. The first is avoidance—completely removing any recognition of the church and creating a secular society, exemplified by France. The second is acknowledgment—a government affirmation of the majority religion, such as Iran.

What we need, Dr. Land suggests, is accommodation, a middle way between the other two. This approach provides healthy pluralism in which all views are allowed, encouraged, and respected and a healthy respect for the value of religion in America’s past, present, and future that permeates society. Americans should be able to bring their religiously informed moral values to public policy discussions.

However, government should not give preference to any one religion over another. Mandating that children in government-supported schools pray or read from the Bible each morning is a form of government acknowledgment, Dr. Land notes. No state-sponsored recognition of God or state sponsorship of religion will restore morality in society. That takes personal recognition of God in human hearts and minds through repentance and belief in Jesus Christ. God wants true worship from a willing heart and neither the state nor church should ever try to use its power to enforce religious beliefs. Dr. Land points out that, historically, the most vocal advocates of church-state separation have been religious conservatives.

Defenders of the pro-abortion and homosexual agenda, among others, have argued that you cannot “legislate morality.” But Dr. Land writes that except in a purely amoral society, morals are always legislated. Saying a woman should be allowed to end the life of her unborn child is a moral view. So is the assertion that homosexuals should be allowed to marry.

America should be a pluralist society where all moral views—including religiously informed moral views—are allowed in the public square for debate, with the people ultimately making the final decision. As Dr. Land suggests, the First Amendment is a shield to constrain government to protect religious speech and action, not a sword to eliminate it from the marketplace of ideas. Pluralism is the goal, instead of—as Dr. Land calls it—“neutralization at the hands of a political correctness stun gun.”

“Soul freedom,” or religious liberty, is a Baptist concept in which each person has the right to decide what he or she will or won’t believe, free of external interference. The “wall of separation” metaphor Roger Williams used in 1636 was to ensure that the state, or any other external influences, would be prevented from encroaching on the church and inevitably destroying religious liberty. Every person has this freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and even the most powerful and malicious government cannot take it away, Dr. Land writes. The Declaration of Independence identifies this as an unalienable right endowed by our Creator. Because America is founded on this principle, it is a unique nation and should retain the right to act when we believe freedom and human rights are at stake.

Contrary to what some religious conservatives would argue, America is not God’s chosen nation (a distinction that belongs to Israel) and Americans are not God’s chosen people (a label belonging to Jews). But, America has been tremendously blessed undeservedly, and as Dr. Land points out, much is expected from those who have been given much. America, as a free and prosperous nation, should operate under a doctrine of obligation, responsibility, sacrifice and service—not pride, privilege and arrogance.

So, what place does God have in America? Probably more than liberals want to admit and less than conservatives want to assume.

View a comparison chart of the avoidance, accommodation and acknowledgement positions.

To learn more, check out Richard Land’s book The Divided States of America? What Liberals AND Conservatives are missing in the God-and-country shouting match! (Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2007), available at local bookstores and at FamilyBookstore.net.

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