Why Church and State Should Be Separate
by Pastor George Van Alstine

When I was elected to the School Board in 1991, I found myself very uncomfortable with the “prayer”that was offered at the start of every regular meeting. The five members of the Board led in rotation. Hearing another member, who was not a believer, struggle through some spiritual thoughts directed vaguely heavenward was painful enough. But what surprised me was my discomfort leading in prayer when my turn came. How could I honestly pray to God on behalf of people who didn’t share my belief in him? Was I actually praying or performing? Did those attending the meeting sincerely want God’s guidance in the Board’s decisions?

I spoke informally with the other Board members, and I found that all of them had a problem with what was for them a meaningless ritual. So early in my first term, I— the only clergy person on the Board—made a motion to end the practice of opening prayer. It was seconded and passed unanimously. There was no negative feedback from the community or church members. It seemed as if everyone wanted it to happen because, I suspect, everyone realized it was a hollow practice that had only symbolic meaning. Today, I don’t think anybody but me remembers it.

What I was reacting against is what is often called “civil religion.” The framers of our American Constitution decided not to establish a State Church. This was a hard choice, because none of them had any knowledge of another nation that existed without a unifying official religion. For more than two hundred years we have been true to this vision. In fact, it is part of the unique genius of our Nation.

However, we have allowed the development of a kind of shadow church, a set of cultural expectations that come from Christian roots and are often expressed in Biblical language. The problem with this “civil religion” is that it allows people to feel that America is a “Christian Nation” and that they themselves are Christians, when they may have no knowledge of God’s offer of grace through Jesus’ sacrifice and the need for personal repentance and salvation.

Roger Williams (1603-1683) is known as the originator of Baptist churches in America. In his breakaway colony Rhode Island, Williams and his compatriots insisted on complete religious freedom, which made the colony a haven for Quakers, Jews and others who differed in religious views. He believed that an individual’s relationship with God could only come from voluntary conversion. It should never be coerced, because “forced worship stinks in the nostrils of God.”

Williams took his most notable stand in relation to the Indian tribes who were being displaced by the colonists. There were two prevailing views: (1) The Indians are subhuman, and they should be annihilated; (2) The Indians are inferior, but capable of moral growth, so they should be forcibly made into Christians. Roger Williams had lived among Indians and had learned their language and culture. He became convinced they were as smart and capable as the English, and in some ways superior. They were certainly able to convert and become true Christians, but to force them would have been an insult to their humanity and to the gospel. Williams was criticized for winning hardly any converts from among his many Indian associations and for seeming to be satisfied to allow them to remain in their pagan beliefs. His response was that making them into halfway Christians would leave them still unconverted.

Roger Williams was convinced that Emperor Constantine, by making Christianity the State religion in the 4th century, had done more to destroy True Faith than Emperor Nero had by killing Christian believers in the 1st century. I think we may learn something from the warnings Williams gave church leaders in his day.