Monday, November 1, 2010

An Update on Church-State Separation

by Rev. Dr. Charles P. McGathy

As national political fires heat up, the subject of separation of church and state once again becomes a topic of intense debate. We Baptists may belong to different political parties or prefer to vote as independents, but we ought to be clear when it comes to the separation of church and state that there is historically one consistent position for Baptists. Our faith is founded upon the notion that there should be religious freedom for all people and that the separation of church and state is a biblical principle supported by Jesus. When he taught his followers to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s,” he established a wall that we should understand and respect.

Our Baptist forbearers understood this. As Baptists they were frequently the recipients of unfair treatment of a church-dominated state, both in the old world an in the fledgling American colonies. That is why Baptists like John Leland are so important. He demanded an absolute separation of religion and government. Leland argued to men like James Madison who framed the U.S. Constitution:
Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks (Muslims), Pagans and Christians.
I mention John Leland intentionally because he would be mortified to learn that the award that bears his name has just been awarded by the Southern Baptist’s Ethics and Religious Commission to Alan Sears. Alan Sears who heads up the Alliance Defense Fund has actually advocated the removal of a wall of separation between church and government. He has said, “One by one more and more bricks that make up the artificial 'wall of separation' between church and state are being removed, and Christians are once again being allowed to exercise their constitutional right to equal access to public facilities and funding.” Surely John Leland would be turning in his grave, where inscribed upon the tombstone it says:
Here lies the body of John Leland, 1754-1841, who labored sixty-seven years to promote piety and vindicate the civil and religious rights of men.
Perhaps such Baptist capitulation to the demagoguery much in vogue these days inspired the political candidate who recently proclaimed that the idea of church and state separation did not come from Thomas Jefferson in his letter to the Danbury Baptists, but from Adolph Hitler. Glen Urquhart (candidate for House of Representatives from Delaware) addressed a crowd of supporters when he made this startling announcement:
Do you know, where does this phrase “separation of church and state” come from? It was not in Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists. …The exact phrase “separation of Church and State” came out of Adolf Hitler's mouth, that's where it comes from. So the next time your liberal friends talk about the separation of Church and State, ask them why they're Nazis.
Actually he is quite wrong. As James Evans points out:
Hitler was, in fact, a great promoter of the union of church and state. One of the main features of his consolidation of power in Germany in the early 1930s was the effort to nationalize the Christian church. And for the most part he was successful. Whether out of loyalty or fear, many if not most of the churches in Germany signed on to Hitler's vision as expressed through the Nazi Party.
The fact remains, however, that such irresponsible statements are made with increasing regularity and actually supported in essence by the very ones who should speak most clearly on religious liberty. As Free and Faithful Baptists, we will not succumb to the temptation to retreat from our founding values. Let us advocate for religious freedom for all. That means that no religion is favored by the state. God’s church does not need the state to interfere or to assist in her mission. All real Baptists know this.

Chuck McGathy is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Madison, NC. This article originally appeared in their October church newsletter.

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