When it comes to forming a new government, none has yet been devised that surpasses what a few men of the late 17th century accomplished when they formed the United States of America.
It is evident they were not perfect men. They never made such a preposterous claim. They were facing untold dilemmas as they sought “to form a more perfect union.”
The union formed was as imperfect as the founders, and with adjustments to the changing situations, met the challenges of the times. They were more interested in commerce than human rights. After a bloody Civil War they got on the road to “equality” for slaves, except women’s right to vote did not arrive until 1920. The Constitution and Bill of Rights still works well today.
The Founding Fathers wanted to avoid the mistakes of the Old World. They wanted no royalty – kings and queens; no social classes – just equality for citizens; and the best arraignment for religion and government – what has been called separation of church and state.
A minority of citizens clamored for General George Washington to be made king. He wisely ignored such a backward step and served his time in government and retired to Mount Vernon. President Washington, because of this action, has sometimes been called American Cincinnatus.
(According to tradition in 458 BCE, Cincinnatus left his plowing when called to serve his country. After he quelled the invader’s attempt on Rome, he refused honors and the dictatorship, returning to his humble farm.)
In every generation there are those individuals who raise the question: Why Church-State Separation? To find an answer requires mutual respect, common sense and study of what were the Founding Fathers thinking at the time.
“Many Christians wrongly believe that the Christian faith will flourish in a more Christian political environment,” writes Derek H. Davis and Matthew McMearty in the Summer 2005 issue of “The Journal of Church and State” (Vol. 47, No. 3).
During the first three centuries of the Christian church, it was not recognized as a religion by any government from the British Isles to Arabia. Christianity grew at an amazingly fervent pace during these years. The more Christians were persecuted for not bowing the knee to Caesar, the more believers were born in God’s Kingdom.
The Emperor Constantine, in 313 CE, declared Christians to be equal with other religious groups. This was followed in 380 CE when Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the empire.
This designation for Christianity to legal status and respectability could have made them stronger in influence and power. But it proved the opposite.
Vigor and distinctiveness were lost and the church actually became weaker as it gained power. It grew in stone and in rules but not in spiritual matters as Jesus promised. Davis and McMearty: “Merged with government, Christianity became consumed with temporal affairs – armies, police, crime, taxation, economics, etc. – and less focused on the mission outlined for it by Christ and the apostles.”
This kind of Christianity continued through the Reformations of the Sixteen century. The times of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, especially in Geneva and Zurich, churches were supported by the city states and largely controlled by the stat.
For example, a mayor could have a pastor removed at will. Wars were fought across Europe as kings took up holy causes to expand or protect the faith of their choice and earthly domain. Henry the VIII got his divorce and the Church of England to run. Jews, and Muslims (as far as they could) were regularly forced out of Protestant and Roman Catholic countries.
This Old World church custom of linking state with church spread to the American colonies, where witch trials were common in church circles. Christians killed or exiled from the some colonies for not going along with the Pilgrims view of scripture and custom.
The Founding Fathers knew that history. They were closer than we are to understanding the wisdom of the state not telling the church what to do, and the churches not telling the government what to do. When neither lords it over the other, they both do their job better.
Britt Towery is a former missionary, freelance writer and published author. His columns are published in the Bulletin on Fridays. He welcomes reader feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.