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Living the Gospel of Life -- Study Guide

Paragraph Eighteen


Understanding "Separation of Church and State"

The phrase "separation of church and state" is found nowhere in the Constitution. It was originally used in a personal letter of Thomas Jefferson, and was not employed by the Supreme Court until the mid-twentieth century.

We need to get a handle on what this phrase means and what some people try to make it mean. Of course there is a division of labor, which is very legitimate, between Church and State. The Church does not have a standing army. The Church does not deliver the mail. The Church cannot say that there are 51 states instead of 50. At the same time the State does not administer the Sacraments or lead people in Sunday worship or determine where pastors are assigned. The State cannot say that there are eight sacraments instead of seven. There is a certain legitimate autonomy, then, that we all acknowledge and accept and can live with.

The problem is that people forget the third element of the equation. Because in our lives, in our world, in our nation there is the Church, there is the State, and then there is morality, which overlaps the concerns of both the Church and the State.

Our Founding Fathers understood that the great experiment of self-governance on which they were embarking would never succeed if God were separated from the State or if the State were separated from morality. They knew better.

The First Amendment to the Constitution is sometimes used to defend "separation of Church and State." But the amendment says nothing about that. What it does say is that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…" When the Federal government was established, all but one of the states had established religions. The decision of our Founding Fathers was that the federal government would not establish any religion itself, but rather leave that decision to the people and the individual states. This has nothing to do with a separation between government and God or between religion and public life. It had everything to do with the proper role of the federal government versus the states.

The very same Congress that crafted the First Amendment passed what was called the Northwest Ordinance.

This ordinance, which was signed by our first president George Washington, set up some of the criteria that had to be followed by new states and territories. Among its provisions was the following: "Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged." In other words, we have to encourage schools because our children have to be imbued with knowledge, morality and religion. It is impossible that, having declared this ordinance, the same body of lawmakers would have intended in the First Amendment to separate religion and morality from government and public life.

Pastors or politicians?

This paragraph of Living the Gospel of Life also mentions the Church's right and duty to comment upon political matters. There is a difference between such commentary and partisan politics. The Church is always free to speak about the issues of the day, even when those issues are being debated by political parties and candidates. The Church can also comment upon the duties of government and the actions of specific political leaders.

But it becomes clear that the Church's message is not partisan as such when we reflect on the fact that if tomorrow each candidate and party swapped positions with their opponents, the Church would not need to change a single word of its message. The Church does not endorse candidates or merge with political parties. The Church, like her Lord, bears witness to a Kingdom that precedes all human governments and institutions, and will outlast them all. While political platforms change, the message of the Gospel does not change. At particular times, that Gospel message may, in effect, present more of a challenge to one candidate or party than another. But the preaching of that message nevertheless cannot be reduced to or categorized as a partisan statement. A statement of Gospel truth may indeed have political implications, but it is no less for that reason a statement of Gospel truth which preachers of the Gospel must in fact preach.

Discussion Questions

How are the Church and State independent of each other?

What are the common misunderstandings of the phrase "Separation of Church and State?"

Further Reading

Click here to read the papers, or listen to the talks, of the Legal Symposium "The Church and Politics: Are we as Restricted as we Think?"

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