Separation of Church and State


Guest post by M. D. Fisher

“Wouldn’t it be great if our society lived by the Bible?” is a sentiment I have heard many times.  Every time I hear it I get riled up because it requires gross ignorance to make such a statement. Most of Europe from the fourth century until the sixteenth either lived by the Bible or a church’s interpretation of that document. Many historians call that period the Dark Ages. Horrors marked it¾the persecution of heretics, pagans and Jews, the Inquisition, the Crusades, the burning of ‘witches’ and the imprisonment or execution of scientists. The Bible is not a guide to a decent life. Nowhere in the Bible is slavery condemned. In fact the Confederacy, which seceded from the United States to preserve slavery, could with reason cite the Bible as support for their cause. The Bible is against women. A woman found not to be virgin is subject to death by stoning.

But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel. Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father’s house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you. Deuteronomy 22:20-21

In the New Testament the following comments of St. Paul make clear that he regarded women as inferior.

Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man. Corinthians 1 11:9

Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church. Corinthians 1 14:34-35

But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. Timothy 1 2:12

Some historians date the beginning of the Dark Ages from the murder of Hypatia by a Christian mob in 415 CE. The pagan Hypatia was an ideal target for Pauline Christians. She was a popular teacher and lecturer on philosophical topics. At the time she was also the world’s leading mathematician and astronomer, the only woman for whom such claim can be made. One expression of Christian misogyny was in witch hunts. According to Jules Michelet in “Satanism and Witchcraft” the witches were mainly women of the village who were knowledgeable about the healing capabilities of natural substances and in some instances were practitioners of folk religion. The witch hunts were meant to extend Christianity throughout society and to eliminate competition against the growing medical profession. All the Abrahamic religions are patriarchal and deny women a say in their destiny. However, women do much of the work to serve those religions. The oppressors have been effective in enlisting the services of the oppressed.

The union of state and church served both state and church. Opposition to the church could be considered treason, and opposition to the state could be considered heresy. The union of state and church left out dissident Christian sects so some of those sects acted independently. Tolerance toward those of other faiths or religious dissenters within the faith was regarded as a lack of devotion. When Servetus was burned at the stake on October 27, 1553 in Calvin’s Geneva, Switzerland, almost all Catholics and Protestants approved of the act as Servetus doubted the Trinity. One of those who protested the act was Sebastian Castellio who wrote, “To kill a man is not to protect a doctrine, but it is to kill a man.” Castellio’s plea for tolerance of dissenting opinions was another step toward separation of religion and state.

Spinoza (1632-1677) was a Jew who was excommunicated by the Jewish community of Amsterdam. He doubted all narrative religion and was the theoretician for the separation of church and state. Spinoza thought ethics were independent of religious belief and could be logically formulated. Roger Williams (1603-1683) is the first person known to use the phrase, separation of church and state. Williams, a Christian minister with strong Christian beliefs, was expelled from Massachusetts because of the conflict of his beliefs with those of Governor Winthrop of Massachusetts. However, unlike many people with strong beliefs, he accepted that other people had as strong beliefs as he had and founded the colony of Rhode Island which became a sanctuary for dissenters of all kinds. From Barry’s Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul:

The Bay’s leaders, both lay and clergy, firmly believed that the state must enforce all of God’s laws, and to do so the state had to prevent error in religion. This conviction they held fast to, for their souls and all the souls in Massachusetts plantation depended upon it.

Williams recognized that putting the state to that service required humans to interpret God’s law. His views were not fully formed¾how Massachusetts dealt with him would itself influence their formulation¾but he believed that humans, being imperfect, would inevitably err in applying God’s law. Hence, he concluded that a society built on the principles that Massachusetts espoused could at best only lead to hypocrisy, for he believed that forced worship “stinks in God’s nostrils.” At worst, it would lead to a corruption not of the state which was already corrupt, but of the church, as it befouled itself with the state’s errors. His understandings were edging him toward a belief he would later call “Soul Libertie.”

The Enlightenment (mid-decades of the seventeenth century through the eighteenth century) was a philosophical movement that supported questioning dogma and other verities of the time. It inspired the founding Fathers of the United States of America to favour freedom of belief and the French revolutionaries to proclaim the Rights of Man. The first country established with freedom of religion as a basic value was the United States of America. James Madison is mainly responsible for the separation of church and state embodied in the US Constitution. In that he was supported by Thomas Jefferson. James Madison in Federalist paper 10 (“The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection”) referred to religion as one of the divisive forces threatening the new nation:

A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.

Devout Christians such as Anabaptist Balthazar Hubmaier, Catholic Lord Baltimore and Puritans Roger Williams, John Milton, and John Locke have supported separation of church and state. Some Christian supporters appeal to the words of Jesus. “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Matthew 22:21 Those anxious to keep peace in a society with many different beliefs favour it. Those who have beliefs which are in a minority favour it as they wish to be left in peace to worship as they will. It serves both state and church. The United States has the highest proportion of religiously observant people of any developed country. Although there have been outbreaks of religious bigotry, the United States has been fairly free of it. People of any faith or none are free to say or do what they will as government has no authority in that area unless there is a violation of law. Separation of church and state has served the United States well, and I think that it would further both freedom and peace if other countries adopted it.

The radical religious right would like to end the separation of religion and state and impose their religious views on others. They couch their aims in noble language. “Right to life” means the denial of abortion by a competent medical practitioner. “Freedom of religion” means the right to discriminate against homosexuals and others the radical religious right disapproves of. “Discuss the controversy” means bringing Creationism and Intelligent Design into the schools to undermine science.  “Freedom of choice” is the use of public funds to support religious schools. Separation of religion and state has been vital to democracy. It must be preserved.

M. D. Fisher, pictured here in 1929

About the Author Karen Garst