This document addresses a popular but irrational interpretation of “the separation of church and state.” It’s a fairly common belief today that the separation of church means that the government is required to operate in a completely neutral way when it comes to religion. I would like to explain why this view is both irrational and dangerous to liberty. As I’ve said before, philosophical neutrality is fallacious and when an interpretation of the constitution is irrational, it could easily lead to tyranny.
The Founders’ Thoughts
It is possible that some of the founders believed they were neutral to all religions, but it is clear that they didn’t design a system of government that would actually work that way. The constitution merely disallowed the federal government to govern what they considered to be the exercise of religion. It is well known that the founders didn’t want the federal government specifying certain matters for the states or for the individual. The problem is that they also made claims based on the existence of God, that did apply to everyone. Unfortunately for us, the range of practices considered to be personal choices and the ones considered to be moral and virtuous for all, are not really self-evident to everyone today. As Christians, we must realize that no matter what the constitution’s problems are, our God is real, what He demands of government is not optional for anyone.
We do know that many of the founders favored Christian principles and those principles were reflected in the things they said and wrote. Here’s what some of the prominent founders of the United States said:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim tribute to patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness — these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. . . . reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles.” – George Washington, First President of the United States, Farewell Address
“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” – John Adams, Second President of the United States
“Providence has given to our people the choice of their ruler, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.” – John Jay, First Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, Second Governor of New York
The Absurd Results of Religious Neutrality
No matter what a person believes about it, complete religious neutrality isn’t possible. It isn’t achievable because religions frequently define opposing sets of requirements. At best, a government can only pretend to be religiously neutral. Consider the religious practices of human sacrifice and cannibalism. If the United States government were really neutral, it would be required to allow these things to take place. It’s obvious to most of us that the government should not allow this, but by not allowing it, the government isn’t really being neutral.
This pretended neutrality also makes it easier for a government to destroy itself. We have seen this appear in the United States as some have suggested that the system of government itself is not neutral and must be dismantled. This is a crafty method of revolution because even if the government is torn down, a new non-neutral government will fill the void.
Over 100 years ago, a well respected pastor in England named J. C. Ryle, gave us this warning:
“To tell us that a Government must leave religion alone, because it cannot promote it without favouring one Church more than another, is simply absurd. It is equivalent to saying that, as we cannot do good to everybody, we are to sit still and do no good at all.”J. C. Ryle (J.C. Ryle on the Government’s Role)
Opening a Door to Tyranny
When a government pretends to be religiously neutral, it damages the rule of law. It enables a tyranny to be empowered by a well known philosophical error. In logic, it’s well established that if you allow a single inconsistency in your worldview, it can be used to prove anything you want it to. This is sometimes called The Principle of Explosion. If a person can convince you to believe in a contradiction, it paves the way for them to manipulate you. If an inconsistency is used as a means of government, it can be used as a manipulation technique to make all of its behavior seem reasonable when it really isn’t.
If a government doesn’t admit its bias, it actually opens the door to tyranny. By choosing when it will pretend to be neutral and when it will not, it can make its subjective philosophy dominant over the objective philosophy of others. Since the founders intended our country to be governed by law not people, the only workable interpretation of the separation of church and state must be one that allows the government to continue to operate by law. The only way for a society to be governed by the rule of law instead of man is for that law to ultimately be in subordination to God’s law. This is a Christian principle and it was a common belief in the west at the time our government was being formed.
What Christians Believe about Government
Christians firmly believe that each person’s decision to become a Christian is personal and autonomous. If a person were to be forced to become a Christian, they would not really be a Christian. Christians also believe that whether or not you choose to be a Christian, all mankind must obey certain civil laws. These civil laws are clear and obvious in the Bible. They include things like fornication, theft, murder and lying in court. The Bible teaches that Christian morality is to be upheld, even among non-Christians. Because Christian principles are based on God’s law in the Bible, no man or government can avoid or change them. This standard exposes human tyranny and promotes liberty because every individual knows that they are free to think and speak as long as they live within the clear and simple civil laws of God provided in the Bible.
Some might wonder how Christians would expect non-Christians to abide by their Bible’s civil laws? The answer is that God has placed a conscience into each person, whether they choose to become a Christian or not. For instance, even in places where the Bible isn’t known, people know that murder is wrong. They also know that cheating, theft and taking someone else’s wife is wrong. The problem is that mankind tends to purposefully corrupt his conscience in order do things that give him pleasure. A person’s inner compass can be suppressed. God’s written civil laws go along with a person’s conscience and a good government merely enforces that conscience so that people can live together in freedom and harmony. This may be distasteful to those who are accustomed to living for their own passions in spite of their conscience, but it is the best thing for them and for their community. More importantly, it is what God, or Creator requires.
J.C. Ryle on the Government’s Role
Read more about what a honorable pastor and follower of the Bible said about the the Church and state.
Rebuilding America’s Foundation
This is something I wrote as I lamented the moral deterioration of the United States. It contains some more quotes that you may want to see by American leaders regarding the Christian worldview that forms the foundation of the American republic.
The Fallacy of Neutrality
I develop the Pretended Neutrality Fallacy a little bit more in this article demonstrating that it is immediately self-refuting.
Exploring the Limits of Civil Government
This document does a better job of explaining the true role of government. The reason that there is a separation of church and state is because God is the only one who gives authority to men and He made the distinction between the two. This is an exploration of the doctrine of governmental authority.
The Christian foundations of the rule of law in the West: a legacy of liberty and resistance against tyranny
This is a very detailed document that discusses issues regarding the history and application of the rule of law in western governments.
220 Days in Luke – Day 103: The Separation of Church and State
I also commented on this subject in my devotional commentary in the book of Luke. You can find that here.