On Sunday, February 19, I included in my sermon (which focused on the biblical texts from Deuteronomy and Matthew) reference to—and reflection on the meaning of the historic “separation of church and state.” This idea of separation originated in a letter of Thomas Jefferson in 1802 to the Danbury Baptist Association, there making reference to the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights: “. . . thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”
At this time in our history, when serious engagement on vital matters is so important, we need to remember that the historic “separation of church and state” in our founding documents was never intended to inhibit serious conversation, rather it was affirmed to prevent a misuse of power and to guarantee respect.
The true spirit of the church-state relationship is reflected in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, originally authored by Jefferson and championed by Madison:
“… no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
Separation was never intended to insulate people’s civic responsibility from their personal faith nor prevent serious engagement with others. It would appear that especially now is a time when the religious faith of people in America ought to inform and inspire their civic attitudes and actions. It is not a time now for citizens to withdraw into the realm of individualized, privatized religiosity when the world needs our involvement.
Because so much is at stake, let’s keep gathering as church AND let’s keep talking!
—John W. Matthews