It all started on February 27, AD 380. That’s when Emperor Theodosius signed a decree that made Christianity the official state religion throughout the Roman Empire.* Before that, being a Christian made a person an enemy of the state, or at least suspect. You could expect to be persecuted for your faith and possibly die a martyr. Of Jesus’ twelve original disciples, all but one died a martyr’s death. The next ten generations of believers were treated as second-class citizens, suspected of disloyalty and, in times of social or political unrest, killed in arenas for sport or in a public square by mass execution to set an example.
However, from the time of Theodosius on, Christianity became allied with whatever European or Middle Eastern power dominated in a particular area. The Vatican in Rome itself became a political state, fielded an army and fought for territory. Charlemagne united Europe in the 9th Century in an alliance with Pope Leo III. For the next thousand years, this Church/State alliance was known as The Holy Roman Empire. Any objective review of the history of Christianity in Europe will see that this deal between religion and politics has created many more problems than it has solved.
The Protestant Reformation challenged the spiritual abuses that rose from this wedding between religious and secular authorities. However, the Reformers’ antidote for the sickness was not to argue for Separation of Church and State, but to replace the State’s Roman Catholic marriage partner with a new one — Lutheran, Reformed, Presbyterian or Anglican. The idea of Church/State alliance was deeply imbedded in Church tradition.
The Europeans who came to America were a mixed bag; the Thirteen Colonies were founded by a variety of populations, each of which brought their Church/State tradition with them. The Jamestown Colony came from England, so they established their Anglican (Episcopal) Church as official Christianity. Later, a group colonized nearby Maryland, and they were Roman Catholic. The Dutch brought their Reformed Church to New York and New Jersey. The Puritans established their new home in Massachusetts. Ironically, though they were escaping religious persecution at the hands of the established Church in England, they quickly established their own in the new Colony — the Congregational Church. Both Connecticut and Rhode Island would soon split off because of what they felt was repression of their religious views. Rhode Island’s Roger Williams asserted some daring new principles of Christian faith in a secular world, and this was the beginning of the Baptist Church in America.**
After the War for Independence, the leaders of the United Colonies tried to decide which of their various Christian expressions would become the State Church in partnership with the new nation. Many of them assumed there had to be an official church, because that’s the way things had always been, ever since February 27, AD 380, when Emperor Theodosius signed that document. Of course, no colony was willing to give in to another colony’s religion as superior, and there was no desire to fight the centuries of religious wars in Europe all over again. So, that’s how America’s Separation of Church and State came to be part of its character. Even though the framers of the Constitution may have stumbled onto this position because of the circumstances in their moment of history, this unique posture of respectful distance between government and religion has proven to be part of the genius of America.
Today, however, there is a serious attempt to affirm and enforce religious principles through government legal decisions and authority. Elected officials are attempting to pass laws designed to impose their particular religious values, even in very controversial matters, onto all citizens. More and more, we are hearing challenges to traditional Church/State Separation and defense of attempts to coerce the entire population into behavior that really should emanate from personal Christian faith. That didn’t work for the Church under Theodosius in AD 380; it didn’t work in the Middle Ages, during the Reformation or in Colonial America; and it won’t work now.
As a Baptist, as an American, and as a Christian, I stand for the Separation of Church and State as the best way to express and expand God’s Kingdom in a lost world.
— Pastor George Van Alstine
* Excellent article on this history at:
** Roger Williams and the early Rhode Island Baptists used the term “Liberty of Conscience” to describe the principle they were fighting for: https://fee.org/articles/book-review-liberty-of-conscience-roger-williams-in-america-by-edwin-s-gaustad/?gclid=Cj0KCQjw4NujBhC5ARIsAF4Iv6cfmuhwgqYLwmA4MNGRVuRuhlS6r0umlRwHmkvHbYH6KILCz7-IBeMaAoN3EALw_wcB