Friday, November 5, 2010

What about Separation of Church and State?

Robin Carnahan, whom I supported in my previous blog posting, unfortunately lost her bid for the U.S. Senate. But, fortunately, so did Christine O’Donnell.

Although not unexpected, I am greatly disappointed that Roy Blunt will soon be seated as the junior Senator from Missouri. In the previous posting I said I was voting for Carnahan partly because of her position on universal health care in contrast to Blunt, who voted against it and has indicated his desire to repeal the new health care laws. While repeal probably won’t happen, I can’t support a Senator who wants to do that.

In addition, in last Sunday’s Kansas City Star, the editorial supporting Carnahan ended by warning, “Blunt would protect the wealthiest at the expense of all others.” From his record, this, sadly, is true, I’m afraid, and that is another reason I voted for Carnahan. And just yesterday I read that Blunt has said, “There isn’t any real science to say we are altering the climate path of the earth” (posted by the Union of Concerned Scientists).

But what about Christine O’Donnell (b. 1969)? She was much in the news in the weeks before the election. There was a lot about her admitting that she “dabbled into witchcraft” while in high school, but I didn’t find that a matter of great concern. What bothered me and a lot of other people were her statements about the important issue of the separation of church and state.

In a debate with now Senator-elect Chris Coons on October 19, O’Donnell challenged her Democratic rival Tuesday to show where the Constitution requires separation of church and state. Of course, she is correct to the extent that the words “separation of church and state” do not appear in the constitution. But she is quite wrong if she thinks that the concept is not firmly there.

It is a historical fact that Baptists played a significant role in promoting the idea of separation of church and state and in securing the passage of the first amendment to the Constitution. Roger Williams (1603-84) was one of the first and most ardent proponents of religious liberty in what became the United States, and he wrote about “the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” This phrase was picked up later by Thomas Jefferson.

Writing to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, Jefferson used the expression “wall of separation between church and state,” and this is usually understood as his interpretation of the establishment clause of the first amendment.

But even though O’Donnell was not elected yesterday, others with questionable views about the separation of church and state were. As Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said Wednesday, “Church-state separation is going to be under sustained fire for the next two years in Congress and in many state legislatures.” For example, John Boehner, the likely new Speaker of the House, has been rated 0% by Americans United, indicating his lack of support for the separation of church and state.

Note: Last month there was a six part series on “God in America” aired on PBS. The second sixty-minute segment was titled “A New Eden,” and it was largely about Thomas Jefferson and the Baptists who were the leaders in establishing the separation of church and state. This is available for viewing online at 


  1. Thanks for your thoughts Leroy. Of the many things more at risk now with a stronger Republican presence in the Congress is religious liberty and the fundamental principal of church-state separation.

    Congress will be losing it's chief advocate of this with the loss of Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas. He has long been a freind of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs and has been a strong and consistent voice in Congress on these issues.

    The only thing that may help us in the next two years is that Congress may be far too distracted by the economy and health care to give much attention to obliterating Jefferson's "wall of separation." It can't be too far down their list of agenda items, but it might be just.

    More than Congress not threatening it, those of us in our churches cannot be complacent by it. We must do more to remind our Baptist church families that we are the historic defenders of religious liberty. How will we ever be ready/able to rise up against the increased threats to church-state separation when we seem so indifferent about it?

  2. Thanks Leroy for this comment. We had a tragic day here in WI losing our fine Senator and electing a real, well I can't say here, as Governor. I am concerned about the issues of religion that are now being pushed by the right, the republicans and FIXED News. They create a fear and it moves towards hatred and violence. Thanks for the witness Leroy!

  3. We live in an age of integration, and that includes everything from integrated schools to integrated circuits. Much of the genius of our age comes from putting the unexpected together.

    So what does this have to do with separation? Well, separation has had its day, from separation of church and state to separation of commercial and investment banking. The collapse of the latter separation in the late 1990s due to heavy lobbying and eventual legal change (the end of the Glass-Steagall Act) brought about much of the financial disaster we are now living through. So the impending threat to the separation of church and state is not a trivial matter. However, how to deal with it is not easy or obvious, either.

    Free and faithful Baptists whom have survived the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention have decades of experience in losing. We have been terrible salesmen. And women. Molly Marshall could not stop them either!

    Perhaps we should start by recognizing where we are. We are in the wilderness. There are two kinds of people in the wilderness. One kind yearns to go back to the leeks and onions in Egypt. The other kind explores the mystery of a burning bush. The wilderness is where God calls Her prophets. In the wilderness, prophets receive their training.

    Baptists, and many others, are not comfortable with the concept of prophets. Certainly the title of "prophet" has been serially abused by those who have exploited it secular potential. However, when we sit down in sackcloth and ashes, wondering what to make of the separation of church and state, we are in a very different place. A place where the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

    The great mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote a book titled "The Hero with a Thousand Faces." It is natural rhythm. Out into the wilderness to learn. Back to the community to serve. Sometimes it is as simple as going off to college. Sometimes it is as deep as a still small voice. Theologian Paul Tillich wrote of "the shaking of the foundations" and "the mountains heaving to and 'fro" as he drew on biblical themes to explain a life that spanned two world wars and the Great Depression.

    Do not despair. Look for your burning bush!