Opinion: Most Americans Have a Misunderstanding of “Separation Of Church And State”
There is an unfortunate trend in America today toward the belief that religion and politics are two separate entities that can’t intersect. Often, people interpret Thomas Jefferson’s use of the phrase “separation of church and state” to mean that religion shouldn’t influence one’s political decisions or that religion should not impact the views of those in office.
As Christians, we should be alarmed by this misinterpretation because if our faith is the foundation of who we are, it should influence every aspect of our lives, including our politics.
For Christians to be bold in their values and dispute the idea that religion shouldn’t play a role in politics, we need to get one thing straight: the real meaning of “separation of church and state.”
The origin of the expression “separation of church and state” is found in a letter from Thomas Jefferson written to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. The Danbury Baptist Association had written a letter to the president voicing their concern that their state constitution lacked specific protections of religious freedom.
The Danbury Baptists wrote in the letter, “what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights. And these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgments, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen.”
Jefferson responded to the Danbury Baptists by referencing the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State,” Jefferson said.
The metaphor of a “wall of separation” was not intended to say that religion should not influence opinion on government issues. Rather, it was used to affirm free religious practice for citizens.
With this in mind, Christians should have courage to be bold in their faith. This means being a pillar of light in the spheres of influence God has entrusted them with and allow the truth of the Bible to guide their daily and political decision making. The “wall of separation” is to keep the government from influencing our religious practice, not to keep our personal religious values separate from who we vote for and what issues we stand for and against.
A prime example of someone who boldly lives out their Christian faith in public service and the political realm is former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. I was encouraged during an interview at 2021 CPAC that his Christian faith guided him in every decision that he made as Secretary of State.
“It undergirds everything that I do – I was America’s Secretary of State, my oath was to defend the U.S. Constitution, people of all faiths but I also looked at everything from a Christian viewpoint.” Pompeo said. “That’s who I am, that’s my grounding, it’s my center point. So, it impacted every single decision that I made, there’s no doubt about that.”
Christians do have a place in politics, and we need courageous followers of Christ to speak up and to be in office now more than ever. Religious devotion should be an admirable trait as it shows that a person has moral and ethical grounding.
“Most people will see it and will say, ‘that is a person who has principle and faith’ and they will admire you for that, whether they are a Christian or not,” Pompeo said.
As Christians, the absolute truth of the Bible, Christ’s example and the guidance of the Holy Spirit must be our foundation and should be evident in our political views. Christians are called to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth and to speak the truth of the Bible in love.
Pompeo’s advises a bold and kind rhetoric in how we talk about Jesus.
“If you’re kind, this is where happy warriors succeed, right. We do it with a smile, we don’t do it out of anger, we don’t do it with a harsh tone, but we are clear about who we are,” Pompeo said.
In a country that is inching closer and closer to post modernity and during a time where division tends to define our country, we need the message of Christ more than ever and we need bold and kind Christ followers to keep the faith and fight the good fight.
Pompeo’s theme of being a happy warrior was reflected in a conversation I had with Texas Senator Ted Cruz at CPAC. Cruz also reiterated a refreshing and powerful perspective to me, illuminating the importance of standing firm in your beliefs.
“Remember what you believe and why, defend liberty, and do it with a smile,” Cruz said. “The great thing about eternal truths, they’re always true. Be a winsome, joyful, happy warrior. It’s a powerful thing.”
Mia Nelson is the Asst. News Editor. View her LinkedIn profile here.