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Religious Freedom in the United States: Church and State Reflections on being a faithful Christian in the US BY RONALD J. SIDER


reedom of religion is probably the most basic aspect of human freedom. Historically, believers fighting for religious freedom often led the way in what eventually became a much broader struggle for human freedoms, including freedom of speech, assembly, and emigration. But what is religious freedom? For many today, religious freedom means some individualistic, self-centered right to create one’s own truth and believe and act in any way one chooses.That is certainly not the Christian understanding of genuine freedom. Genuine freedom is the freedom to say yes to God’s will and design. “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather serve one another humbly in love” (Gal. 5:13).The apostle Paul teaches that apart from Christ people are in bondage to selfish desires. Only Christ can bring genuine freedom: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). So what is the connection between the genuine freedom to choose God’s way and the modern notion that freedom means doing whatever one pleases? The connection is precisely the Creator’s decision not to create automata compelled by their very nature to obey and glorify God but free persons who could, without compulsion, willingly decide to love and submit to God. But that meant that God also created persons with the potential to disobey and thus foolishly embrace and glorify a distorted understanding of freedom as a personal right to do whatever they please. That is not what God desires. It is not genuine freedom (in part because it inevitably leads to bondage to harmful selfish desires). But its

possibility flows from God’s desire to be in personal relationship with persons who freely choose to love and obey him. In an analogous way, societies that recognize the right of religious freedom acknowledge that persons are free beings and therefore insist that the state must protect the freedom of each person to embrace, practice, and share whatever religious beliefs they choose.

SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE Increasingly, throughout the world, there is widespread agreement on key elements of religious freedom: individuals should be free to believe, worship, and act in conformity with their religious beliefs (even convert to another religion) without interference from the state; religious institutions (churches, temples, mosques, synagogues, etc.) should be free to organize and engage in activities in keeping with their mission without interference from the state. Does that mean that “church and state” must be totally separate, totally unrelated? No. Total separation of church and state is both practically impossible and theologically unacceptable. If the state wants to be careful neither to establish religion nor hinder its free exercise, then the state must have some working definition of religion!1 If the state decides not to tax religious institutions (churches, synagogues, faith-based organizations), then it requires some legal definition of religion to distinguish the religious institutions it will not tax from nonreligious ones that it may tax. Precisely in order to respect religious freedom, the state must have some relation-

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ship with religious institutions. The theological reasons for rejecting total separation are even more important. Thomas Jefferson’s famous letter that contained the words “separation between church and state” also defined religion as something purely personal:“Religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God.” (2) Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all reject this exclusively personal, privatized view of religion. For Christians, Jesus is Lord of all—King of kings and Lord of lords. That means that Christians must embrace and live out Christ’s lordship not just in their personal lives and in church but also in every area of life. The very essence of Christian faith requires that it find expression in public life in many different ways. There is a sense in which the church has some responsibility to shape every area of life: family, education, business, the arts, and the state. Since Christ is Lord of all these areas, Christians must reflect deeply on what it means to act in a Christlike way in all of these realms. The church must nurture individual believers and also specially focused organizations that understand how to do this and in fact do it well. This task certainly includes shaping the state. But that does not mean the church should try to run the state. It is crucial to understand that church and state are two distinct institutions, both equally ordained by God but enjoying different purposes. The purpose of the state is to nurture justice—i.e., right relationships among all the individuals and institutions in a given society—for our life here on earth until Christ returns. The purpose of the church is to preach and live the full gospel of the kingdom.That includes both preparing persons for life eternal and also teaching and modeling what it means to live now according to the norms of Jesus’ messianic kingdom that has already begun to break into history. As the church performs this second task, it necessarily teaches its members—and anyone else who will listen—the basic principles that lead to justice and wholeness in every area of life—including politics. Inevitably, therefore, the church interacts in fundamental ways with the state simply by carrying out its own mission to teach and live its confession that Jesus is Lord of all. That does not mean, however, that we forget that the church and state have quite different mandates. It does not mean the church as an institution should seek to run the state. It does not mean that Christians should seek a constitutional amendment declaring, “Jesus is Lord.” (That statement is certainly true, but it is not part of the state’s mandate to comment in any way on that truth.) Proclaiming that truth is the task of the church, not the state. One crucial implication of what we have just said about the different purposes of the church and state is that it is fundamentally misguided and exceedingly dangerous to speak

of any nation, including the United States, as a “Christian nation.” The purpose of every state is to promote the justice God wills for all its citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs, not to confess Christ’s lordship. Partly for that reason, no state has a special relationship to God, although some states at various times do a better job of promoting the justice God wills than do others. Furthermore, Christian theology teaches, and history demonstrates, that every nation is a complex mixture of good and evil. Christian values have indeed shaped the history of some nations more than others, but this in no way means either that some nations are “Christian” or that they have a special relationship to God. American history is especially problematic at just this point. One piece of the New England Puritans’ failure to practice religious freedom was that they saw their whole society as “God’s new covenant people”—“a new Israel.” Somehow, as the United States adopted religious freedom for all, the notion of God’s new Israel was transferred to the nation. Many Americans, especially Christians, came to believe that God had a special covenant with America.3 The result has frequently been a near-idolatrous nationalism that equates God and country, failing to make the basic distinction between church and state. All this means that the relationship of church and state is complex. They must be separate in very important ways. But they must not, and cannot, be totally separate. Inevitably and rightly they will interrelate in numerous ways. One important reason they must interrelate is because Christians insist that their faith in Christ must find expression not just in personal beliefs and individual private practices but also in the common life of the church, which is Jesus’ new visible community. Simply in order to be the new kingdom community Christ calls his church to be, the church must be able to organize as a visible community, constructing buildings and organizing programs and institutions (e.g., schools and hospitals) to minister to the many needs of people, especially the poor and marginalized. Since the task of the state is to promote justice for all the persons and institutions in society, it inevitably must relate to religious institutions.

EXPRESSIONS OF FAITH IN THE PUBLIC SQUARE Since Christians must let Christ be Lord of their whole lives, and since Christians are also citizens responsible in a democracy to shape the decisions of government, both individual Christians and the organized church, therefore, must relate to the state in many different ways. Four are especially important: prayer, modeling, prophetic challenge, and political participation.4 Prayer. 1 Timothy 2:1-2 urges Christians to offer “peti-

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As citizens, individual Christians rightly do all of these things. It is also appropriate for groups of Christians to form organizations and institutions to do all these things as communal efforts of Christians with a common vision. Normally, however, it is better if church leaders (pastors, denominational leaders) and official church structures (congregations, national denominational bodies, etc.) not do some of these things.Why? For at least two reasons. First, it is not the proper task of the church to tell government what detailed policies it should follow. Second, if church officials and structures become immersed in detailed political bargaining and partisan activity, they lose their moral authority, weaken their ability to minister to the full range of church members who share sharply divergent political views, and are easily corrupted and used by politicians. Normally, it is better for pastors and other church leaders not to run for political office.8 It is not only illegal today in the United States but also generally unwise for church leaders and official church structures to endorse specific candidates. With care, on occasion, and after due process within a congregation or denomination, it is appropriate for a congregation or denomination to explicitly oppose or endorse a specific piece of legislation. On occasion, without a congregational or denominational process that authorizes church leaders to speak for the whole body, it is appropriate for church leaders to do the same as long as they make it clear that they are speaking only for themselves as citizens and not their churches. Most of the time, however, I think it is wiser for church leaders and official church structures to help their church members think about and engage wisely and faithfully in politics by articulating and promoting some general political principles rather than regularly endorsing specific legislation. Embracing religious freedom for all and insisting that the state should neither establish nor hinder the full exercise of religion does not mean that there should be no interaction between church and state or that we should banish religious people and religious arguments from political life. Both political life and theological conviction demand substantial intersection. However, deciding exactly what kind of interaction and how much of what kind is a complex task that is never finished. ■

tions, prayers, intercessions…for kings and all those in authority.” Karl Barth says prayer for the state is “the essential service which the Church owes the State.” 5 Prayer for the state, Barth suggests, is perhaps the best way to both remind the state of its limits and remind the church of its freedom. Prayer for the state includes all the other things Christians owe the state. Modeling. The church also owes society, including the state, the gift that comes from simply being the church. As Jesus’ messianic community, a visible model now of what the kingdom will be like when Christ returns, the church should be a living, visible demonstration of the racial, economic, and social reconciliation that God wills for all humanity. The church should be leading the way, implementing God’s special concern for the poor and needy. Just by being the church—Christ’s visible model now of the redeemed humanity that he will bring in its fullness at his return—the church deeply impacts society. Historically, it was the church that first sought to care for the sick and offer education to poor children. Impacted by this model, the state later built hospitals and organized universal education. On the other hand, in the absence of consistent modeling in the body of Christ, Christian appeals to government are weak and ineffective. It is a farce to ask government to legislate what Christians, out of disobedience, refuse to live.6 Prophetic challenge. Christians know that Christ is Lord of all, even the state, though the state does not explicitly acknowledge that reality. Christians also know both God’s standards about justice that apply to all societies and also the sad truth that sin has deeply corrupted every society. Therefore Christians must raise voices of prophetic challenge calling attention to current instances of societal injustice. Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other national and global Christian leaders rightly condemned the terrible evil of apartheid in South Africa. Bishop David Gitari rightly denounced undemocratic proposals and corruption by top government officials in Kenya.7 Individual Christians, congregations, and denominations all act appropriately when they bring economic injustice, violations of freedom, sexual trafficking, indeed any injustice to the attention of society in general and political leaders in particular. Prophetic witness calling attention to the state’s failure to implement justice is an important gift the church rightly offers to the state. Political participation. There are many forms of political participation: formulating and promoting a biblically grounded framework for political engagement; holding open, bipartisan dialogues on specific issues, platforms, and candidates; supporting or opposing specific pieces of legislation; endorsing and working to elect specific candidates; running for and serving in an elected political office.

Ron Sider is the president/founder of the Sider Center on Ministry and Public Policy, of which Evangelicals for Social Action is one ministry.This article was adapted from chapter 9 of The Scandal of Evangelical Politics:Why Are Christians Missing the Chance to Really Change the World? just out from Baker Books. It appears here by kind permission of the publisher. Editor’s note: the endnotes for this article have been posted at EndNotes.

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Religious Freedom in the United States: Church and State  

A look at the interaction between political life and theological conviction.

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