Separation of Church and State in Today’s Society

The First Amendment of the Constitution states “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.” We know this as the Establishment Clause. It is the clause that declares the United States will have no official religion. There will be no official church, unlike England and other European countries that have their own state churches.

As time progressed, the Establishment Clause has been interpreted by the phrase “separation of church and state.” These words are not found in the Constitutions, but many politicians, religious leaders, courts, and others have used these words to guide what, they believe, the Founding Fathers meant by the Establishment Clause.

Without getting into the historical and political ramifications of the interpretation, we do have a question. Should there be interaction between government and religion? There is interaction that exists currently. Churches receive tax incentives from government as do clergy. We also know that religious groups interact with government and lobby for certain issues. It would seem that on, first glance, both the state and the church want to have some interaction with each other.

This doesn’t get to the heart of the issue. That is why should Christians interact with government? In what ways? Why? For what purpose?

To answer these questions, I believe we have to change the debate from what has been the common focus in regards to separation of church and state for many. Too often the argument has centered on whether the Ten Commandments should be displayed on the walls of court buildings and other issues.

These debates, I believe, have focused too much on appearances and the cosmetic than true, deep, and personal interactions with the communities around us. When we focus on cosmetic issues, we distract ourselves from true issues that are facing the world today. We ignore seeking justice, working in love to interact with our neighbor, and proclaiming the Holy Love of God. Those are the more important issues and not whether or not a Circuit Court building has on display the Ten Commandments. We must live out the law of the Ten Commandments in our heart and interactions with others.

To change the debate, then, we must understand how we interact with society. H. Richard Neibuhr’s work entitled Christ and Culture has been invaluable in this regard. Neibuhr examines various reasons regarding why we interact with culture, and ultimately government. According to Neibuhr, we can interact with culture by separating entirely (Christ Against Culture), argue that Jesus is the hero of culture and thus baptize all there is about culture (Christ of Culture), that there is a both/and approach to culture or a synthesis (Christ Above Culture), or that there are two kingdoms (Christ and Culture in Paradox), or that we are called to transform the society around us (Christ Transforming Culture).

We do not have to state which we belong to, but we must understand that how we interact with culture, and government, likely will be influenced by one or more than one of these views. We need to know where we stand and what our view of the culture around us looks like. If not, then it is easy to be influenced by the world around us, especially by political and social agendas that seek to do the will of the world and not the will of God.

When we interact with culture, or government, it must be done in a way that we are giving glory to God and following God’s will for our lives. Matthew 6:24 reminds us that we cannot serve two masters. We will love one and hate the other. That is the warning in our interactions with culture. If we strive after the world’s agenda, we can run into the issue of loving the master (the world) and hating whom we should love (God).

We’ve seen this a lot in recent years where several religious groups – both on the theological right and theological left – have been more concerned about seeking political power instead of seeking after the will of the Father. While this may lead to more importance and influence inside the Beltway of Washington, it takes away from true social reform and interaction with the world around us that is personal and done so in community.

So, how then should we interact with government? This is a question for each Christian to answer. I cannot give the answer to this. I wish I could.

As for myself, I believe we are called to transform society, but to do so in a way that honors the will of the Father and not the will of the Republican or Democratic parties or even political ideologies. We must be advocates for justice and social reform. Religion has an important voice to give to the debate and discussions that take place in Washington and in our states and municipalities.

Our interactions with government and culture should seek real transformation to reach the deep and personal concerns for those around us. We must remove ourselves from the issues of vanity and concern ourselves with justice and care for the poor. If we do not, then have we really shown a faith that works through love?

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