The Magic Spell of “Separation of Church and State!”

It's a way of trying to make Christians disappear from the public square.

By David Mills Published on January 27, 2015

“Last I heard, we had separation of church and state in this country,” declared a congressman from Colorado during the debate over health care. “I’ve got to say that I think the Catholic bishops and all of the other groups shouldn’t have input.” He was upset that the Catholic bishops had insisted that the health care bill not include abortion.The Church should just shut up. Christians had no right to speak, as Christians, in public affairs.

Dozens of politicians and journalists have said things like this. The congressman was a little clearer than most of them about his desire to keep Christians out of the public square to make it easier for him to get what he wanted, but lots of influential people think the same way. People tee off on Christians for their alleged meddling in national politics, justifying it with the inevitable appeal to “the separation of church and state.” (Or to “pluralism” and “democracy,” which is the more sophisticated way of saying the same thing.)

It’s a kind of magic spell, that short, simple phrase. A Christian raises a question of morality, and the person who doesn’t want to answer the question sings out “separation of church and state,” fully expecting the Christian to curl up like a dead spider.

Never mind that the men who wrote the American Constitution didn’t mean anything of the sort. Never mind that a truly pluralistic, democratic nation expects people to bring their deepest convictions to the public debate over what the government should do. And never mind that the Church has repeatedly pointed out that she is simply recognizing the right and wrong everyone can see. There’s nothing “doctrinal” or “sectarian” about saying that killing an unborn child is wrong and that the child deserves the same legal protection he would have were he born.

Thomas Jefferson used the expression of a "wall of separation" in a letter. The phrase does not appear in the US Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson used the expression “wall of separation” in a letter. The phrase does not appear in the US Constitution.

“You shall not kill” is no more “dogmatic” than “You shall not swindle Mrs. Jones out of her life savings.” It’s a statement of the moral law. More to the point, it’s no more dogmatic than “the Catholic bishops shouldn’t have input” and “Coercive religion should have no place in a pluralistic, democratic nation.”

But you will have trouble getting a hearing if you say this. I don’t mean to be unkind, but we should be clear that these responses are not very thoughtful and that Christians should not be intimidated by them, though they are delivered loudly and forcefully. You may feel as if you’d showed up with your notes for a polite exchange and your opponent showed up with a foghorn and a baseball bat after drinking nineteen cups of coffee. You reasonably suspect that he doesn’t have reason on his side. But you shouldn’t back down.

So what can you say to someone who wants to banish Christians from the public debate, assuming you can get a word in?

You might try turning the tables and ask him where he gets his own beliefs. You’ve been honest about yours, he should be honest about his. If you keep pressing him, he will eventually get to his fundamental assumptions and you can point out that he is just as “dogmatic” or even “religious” about his assumptions as he says you are about yours.

But he may well not answer at all. People who think they have a magic spell don’t like to be interrupted when they’re casting it. They tend to be very annoyed when they find it doesn’t work.

That being the case, you might simply say “What about the Civil Rights Movement?” or “What about the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.?” The Civil Rights movement was led by Christians ministers acting as ministers. Dr. King’s speeches often invoked God’s judgment on racial discrimination and his will that all his people be free. It was an openly religious movement. And no one in America objects to that.

The country would look very different today if these ministers had accepted the secularist view of the separation of church and state. Even the congressman and the columnist would not want Dr. King to have separated church and state. Christians today can demand equal treatment.

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