What Separation Of Church And State Really Means

At USA Today, Notre Dame Law Professor Richard Garnett uses the current battle for religious freedom in China as an example of why separation of church and state is important, and how it has been misunderstood by people on both sides of the debate:

It is precisely by failing to respect the separation of church and state, and by trying to co-opt and domesticate what the government regards as a dangerous rival, that China is trampling on religious freedom. In a way, China and the Holy See are replaying one of the oldest and most fundamental religious-liberty scripts.

Today, many regard church-state separation as a reaction to church control of government. In fact, it was for a millennium the ambition of kings to expand their power, and keep down their rivals, by controlling the church and its affairs.

By resisting, the medieval church affirmed the foundational and still fundamental principle that the state and its power are limited.

And for that the world should be eternally grateful. It was in the efforts of the Catholic Church to assert its independence from the rulers of Europe that the ideas that formed the basis for the Enlightenment eventually sprung. More importantly, it was the fact that those efforts succeeded, and the Church became a powerful force in Europe outside of the state, that we can point to as the reason why despotism of the type that existed in Asia and Central America, which were dominated by state religions where the role of priest and poltician was intertwined, never really manifested itself in Europe.

In his conclusion, Garnett points out why separation of church and state is important for everyone:

The struggle for the church’s freedom in China reminds us that what the separation of church and state calls for is not a public conversation or social landscape from which God is absent or banished. The point of separation is not to prevent religious believers from addressing political questions or to block laws that reflect moral commitments. Instead, “separation” refers to an institutional arrangement, and a constitutional order, in which religious institutions are free and self-governing — neither above and controlling, or beneath and subordinate to, the state. This freedom limits the state and so safeguards the freedom of all — believers and non-believers alike.

Properly understood, the church and the state are neither enemies nor rivals, they are independent institutions, and the doctrine of separation allows both to exist in a way that is most beneficial for human liberty.

H/T: Brendan Loy

  • Jim McMeans

    This article addresses the the origin of the concept of the separation of Church and State. But the concept predates the Middle Ages. It was Jesus and the Founding Fathers of Christianity who created the Concept of the Separation of Church and State.

    Many Christians today believe that Church and State separation is a founding Christian principle. For example, Jesus was born into an almost totally theocratic society. Jesus and his apostles and disciples could have easily incorporated much or most of the theocratic elements of Judaism into Christianity, but they did not, as is clearly evidenced from the New Testament scriptures and the known history of the first two hundred years of Christianity. Thus, separation of church and state can be said to be one of Christianity’s founding principles.

    When Christianity became the semi-official religion of the Roman Empire in the early 300’s, it marked the beginning of the persecution of Christians by other Christians. Christians in Europe and Asia called Novations and also Donatists who lived in North Africa were the first victims of a Christian –State union. These early Christians were persecuted over the issue of church governance. The victims of the persecution believed this new Church-State union or rapprochement was intended to serve the interests of the state and a few ambitious churchmen, not God.

    As a result of a continuing series of abuses carried out by various Church-State unions in Europe, in 1457 the Moravians in Bohemia denounced all unions of church and state.

    In the year 1524, Anabaptists in Zurich advocated the practice of the separation of church and state.

    In 1631 in America, Roger Williams advocated that the Puritans “separate church from state in their colony.”

    Until only recently, the separation of church and state was considered a vital and non-negotiable principle of the Baptist denomination, which traces their roots back to the apostolic age. According to the Southern Baptist Statement of Faith which can be found on their website, “Church and State should be separate.”

    The Bible is the constitution of Christianity. It is illogical when political conservatives who believe in a “strict constructionalist” interpretation of the U.S. Constitution fail to employ that same principle in religion, and neglect or ignore the beliefs and principles of the founders of Christianity as revealed in the Bible.

    These are only a few of many examples of the practice of the concept of the separation of church and state predating Jefferson, the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. Email jmcmeans@negia.net if you wish to read a copy of a longer article on the subject with more historical examples of Christians who believed the separation of church and state was one of the founding principles of Christianity.