Tension Between Two Friends: Church and State

Tuesday Re-mix – This is a popular post from last year, updated and resubmitted for your consideration and comments.

As a practicing attorney and a practicing church mediator, I have an interest in issues pertaining to religious liberties.  In fact, it just may be that there is a series of posts coming in the future on this topic.  But with the  old debates in California over Proposition 8 and with the “experiment” by some conservative churches involved in political campaigning in the most recent presidential election, I noticed some pretty loose interpretations of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  So, I thought I would chime in.

First, let me just say that, as a Christian lawyer (no, that is not an oxymoron) “the church” and “the state” are both good friends of mine.  I love them both and am loyal to them both.  So, I get a little miffed when either of them is misrepresented by “voices” in our culture who, frankly, haven’t studied either of them enough to be speaking on them in public forums.  Even  with 26 years of law practice and 30 years of Bible teaching under my belt, I don’t consider myself an expert on these issues.  But I think I can at least dialogue about them intelligently.  I cannot say the same for many of the voices I have seen and heard recently.  For the sake of the kingdom and the testimony of Christians everywhere, please do your homework before you sound off on issues of church and state.

Second, let me say that these issues involving church and state are dynamic issues, constantly morphing and shifting (even in the Supreme Court’s opinions over the last few decades) and are “blurry” to say the least.  So whenever you see or hear someone talking about them as if they are as plain as the nose on your face… well, just be careful.  They are complicated issues and they have many, many facets to them.  They cannot be summed up in catch phrases and sound bites, despite the media’s constant attempts to do so.

constitutionI think it misrepresents both the First Amendment language dealing with religious liberties and the Supreme Court’s various interpretations of that language to say that people have no business bringing their religious convictions to the table in political issues, or that they should not allow those convictions to drive their political views.  If you think about it, that’s just ridiculous.  It would be utterly impossible to read ANY of the founding father’s documents and draw that conclusion.  Moreover, to say that “the church” mobilizing to vote on an issue is somehow wrongly imposing its values on others is equally ridiculous.  After all, every vote on every  issue is a person’s attempt to “impose their values” on that issue.  That, it seems to me, is what democracies do.  For an election loser to cry “unfair” when their particular values cannot carry the vote is, well, not very democratic.  To say that every worldview is welcomed at the political table except, of course, a Biblical worldview, would itself be a violation of the First Amendment… not the other way around.

churchI also think it misrepresents the First Amendment when parties proclaim that it is somehow designed to keep the church out of government.  Certainly, the label “separation of church and state” could be interpreted that way (that is one of those “sound bytes” I referred to above), but not the language of the First Amendment.  The Constitutional language dealing with religious liberties is contained in two clauses: the establishment clause and the free exercise clause.  Here they are together:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

Note, there is no language anywhere in there which addresses what a church can or cannot do.  It only addresses what the state can or cannot do.  It prevents any action at all by the government which either tends to establish a state church or which tends to infringe in any way upon the church’s exercise of it’s faith.  In layman’s terms, this Constitutional language simply imposes a “restraining order” of sorts on one of my friends (the state) where the other of my friends (the church) is involved.  In short, the state must stay away from the church.  But it doesn’t place any restraint at all on the church.  I wish people would stop implying it does.  If we must use descriptions such as “the separation of church and state” (which even the Supreme Court is now beginning to admit is a poor short-hand description of religious liberties) can we at least do our homework and understand the correct language that belies that label?

Rant now officially over.

So, I have these two dear friends with a healthy tension between them, and they have been in the news quite a bit lately, and I suppose I am feeling a bit protective of them both.  I hope you understand.

© Blake Coffee

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