Church, State: A Failed Marriage
This is adapted from a sermon preached a week ago at Seven Lakes Chapel in the Pines. The Lectionary Gospel text that morning was Matthew 22:15-22.
By the Rev. Don Welch
Special to The Pilot
When you woke up this morning and decided to get dressed and come to the chapel for worship, you were validating a noble experiment that has made the United States the most religiously diverse nation in the history of the Earth.
Last month, on Sept. 17, Constitution Day went unnoticed and uncelebrated by most Americans. Two hundred and twenty-four years ago, on Sept. 17, 39 members of the Constitutional Convention signed the charter for the document by which this country has been governed for over 200 years.
We, who are Christians, should consider sainthood for George Mason of Virginia, who insisted that there must be added to the document a Bill of Rights, and two years later it was done. We should be especially grateful for the First Amendment. It reads in part:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Although the idea of the separation of religion and state would have been a strange and foreign idea in Jesus’ time, it has its roots in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus is asked if it is right to pay taxes to Caesar. Recognizing a plot to trap him into saying something that could be either seditious or blasphemous, Jesus asked to see a coin used by the Jews to pay Roman taxes. Taking the coin in his hand, he asked whose picture was on its face.
“Caesar,” was their reply.
Jesus replied: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.”
My first conversations with this text led me to begin preparing a sermon on Christian stewardship, but all this changed last Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 12, when I picked up The Pilot and read Steve Bouser’s column with the intriguing headline, “Do We Need a ‘Christian’ Government?”
I was so moved by the sense of his thoughts that I put my paper down, dropped my head, and thanked God for the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, and for this grand experiment that allows me to worship God as a Christian without any government direction or interference.
I am grateful that all denominations of Christianity and all religions can build houses of worship wherever they wish, as long as they meet the building and zoning codes of the county or community, and that there can be no religious test for holding political office.
An interesting battle is going on now in our own country. Secular institutions like the ACLU are defending the First Amendment, and some religious Christian groups, for the first time in this nation’s history, are calling for its destruction either by repeal or radical reinterpretation.
Ironically, many of these religious groups came to this country to seek religious liberty from oppressive state religions. Our birthright of religious freedom is under attack, and the wall of separation between church and state is being eroded year by year.
The Lesson of History
A great loss came to both church and state in 325 A.D. when the Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity as the religion of the empire. The church lost its prophetic voice as it became powerful, wealthy and totally secularized — even changing its teachings and doctrines to suit the emperor
Decade by decade in nation after nation, the church became drab, dismal and discredited, and the state lost its independent conscience. Kierkegaard once spoke of the state Lutheran Church in Denmark when he said: “Oh, how hard it is to be a Christian in a land where everyone is Christian!”
Dr. William Self, a Baptist preacher and writer in Georgia, once wrote: “The clear lesson of history is that when church and state go to bed together they do not make love and they do not produce offspring. The lesson of history is that one always rapes the other.”
A recent lesson is seen in the tragic surrender of the German state to Adolf Hitler by the Church in Germany simply because Hitler neither smoked nor drank. This should haunt Christians for centuries.
Why is all this happening in our time? Perhaps it is because some Christians are not only uncomfortable but extremely frightened by the rapid changes in our culture and moral climate over the past four decades.
Supreme Court rulings on prayer in public schools, the sexual revolution, acceptance of abortion — and now the Great Recession, with poverty, joblessness and homelessness increasing with each passing month — have all contributed to make conservative Christians extremely uncomfortable.
Ripe for Totalitarianism?
In the ’60s and ’70s, American society freed itself from excessive ethical and cultural structures. We are no longer the land of Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers, or the nation of John Wayne, Bing Crosby, Clark Gable and Robert Young.
No one seems to be an authority on what is right or wrong, good or evil; and now into this vacuum comes a new generation of Christians who are not comfortable living existentially. We are ripe for totalitarianism in both the church and politics. We want someone to come and save us from ourselves. We are looking for Superman, but have you noticed the telephone booths where he changed have disappeared from our street corners?
Maybe if we elected good Christians to office and a good Christian as our president, everything would return to the way we think we remembered it. And if we adopted biblical laws and enforced Christian principals in our schools and government, wouldn’t our lives be so much better and our society more law-abiding?
Have I just described the Christian nation for which so many are clamoring? No! No! No! It is a description of a totalitarian Muslim country. Just substitute the words Allah for God, Mohammad for Christ, the Quran for the Bible and Islam for Christian. Is this a place where you want to live? God forbid!
Like most of you here, I was born into Christianity through a Christian family, but over the years I have studied every major world religion and taught college courses on the subject. I am no longer a Christian by birth. I am a Christian by choice. I find the Christian story of Jesus the most compelling of all ancient and modern religious stories, with the power to transform lives, including my own.
I have spent my adult life teaching and attempting to persuade others to invest in the Jesus story and become his disciple.
I am aware and appreciative that millions of people in the world and in these United States hold beliefs different from mine and worship and practice their faith much differently. I will honor and protect their rights to believe and worship as their consciences guide them.
In many countries, I would not be allowed this freedom and might even be arrested or persecuted and killed for believing as I do. Knowing that makes it all the more important for us to protect the rights of all religions and the rights of those who hold no religious beliefs at all. This is the miracle of this country that I love.
All Are Sinners
I believe that Christians have a responsibility to participate in the political process and to stand for and hold offices in government. In this country, one often has to choose one party over another. As partisan as we may be at times, let us remember that all politicians, like us, are sinners in need of redemption, and that no political party, Democrat or Republican, has ever been mistaken for the Kingdom of God where you and I hold our citizenship.
Remember the words of Jesus before Pilate when he was on trial by both church and state: “My kingdom is not of this world.”
Hear again the wise words in today’s lesson: “Give Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give God what belongs to God.”
At the end of the Christian marriage ceremony is this admonition to the bride and groom and to all present: “Those whom God has joined together, let no one put asunder.” Perhaps these words can be rearranged to describe the separation of church and state:
What God has put asunder, let no one join together.
Don Welch is the minister of the Seven Lakes Chapel in the Pines and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His sermons can be heard each week at sevenlakeschapelinthepines.com.
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