Friday, October 15, 2010

The Separation of Church and State

Whenever we drive out of town, my wife, Ann, and I have the same routine: She drives and I read to her. The custom began when we realized early in our relationship that she liked driving long distances more than I do and that, unlike her, I can read in the car without getting sick.

Some might call it kismet. I just call it a good deal. Ann and I both get to do what we enjoy doing while driving and, together, we "read" a bonus book beyond whatever we may individually be reading at the time.

We started out reading magazine and newspaper articles. But in recent years, we've switched to reading books. With frequent visits to see our family members, who are an hour's drive from where we live these days, we've been able to work our ways more quickly through some great books. We just finished T.J. Stiles' biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, The First Tycoon, and have just moved onto Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War.

Philbrick attempts to revise the revisionists' take on the Pilgrim settlers of Massachusetts. He tries to move beyond the simplistic interpretations that have prevailed in the past: first, the virtuous and religious Pilgrims who got along well with the Native Americans they encountered and with whom they celebrated the first Thanksgiving; then, the rapacious, bloodthirsty Europeans who viewed the Native Americans as subhuman obstacles. Neither version of events fits with the facts, Philbrick says, though each contains elements of the more complicated truth.

I may write in more detail about the book later. But for now, I'd like to share a few lines that really caught my attention as we read Mayflower on the way back from a workout and grocery shopping foray this evening. Philbrick is discussing the Mayflower Compact, the famed document about which every elementary school student learns--or at least, learned for years and should still be learning today, if we intend to turn out citizens actually capable of making sound decisions when they vote or watch the television news. The Compact was the first governing document produced by European settlers in the Americas. Along with the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, it is among the most important political document produced here.

Just over half the Mayflower settlers were Pilgrims, meaning that in a vote by males (the only ones who got a vote in this seventeenth century outpost), they could get their way. But their pastor, who remained in Holland as a large portion of his flock headed for the New World, had emphasized the importance of working together with those who didn't share the Pilgrims' faith. Pastor John Robinson's advice, codified in the Compact signed by forty-one male colonists (nine did not sign, many probably owing to illness), acted, in a way, as a model for subsequent developments. Robinson, in a farewell letter written to the Pilgrims from their exile home in Leiden, Holland, where they had lived for some years following emigration from England, did not envisage a theocracy, but a civil government, separated from the Church.

But, take a look at Philbrick's interesting account and reflections:
Before they landed, it was essential that they all sign a formal and binding agreement of some sort. Over the course of the next day, they hammered out what has come to be known as the Mayflower Compact.

It is deeply ironic that the document many consider to mark the beginning of what would one day become the United States came from a people who had more in common with a cult than a democratic society. It was true that Pastor Robinson had been elected by the congregation. But once he'd been chosen, Robinson's power and position had never been in doubt. More a benevolent dictator than a democratically elected official, Robinson had shrewdly and compassionately nurtured the spiritual well-being of his congregation. And yet, even though they had existed in a theocratic bubble of their own devising, the Pilgrims recognized the dangers of mixing temporal and spiritual authority. One of the reasons they had been forced to leave England was that King James had used the ecclesiastical courts to impose his own religious beliefs. In Holland, they had enjoyed the benefits of a society in which the division between church and state had been, for the most part, rigorously maintained. They could not help but absorb some decidedly Dutch ways of looking at the world... was John Robinson who pointed [the Pilgrims in Massachusetts] in the direction they ultimately followed. In his farewell letter, Robinson had anticipated the need to create a government based on civil consent rather than divine decree. With so many Strangers [the term the Separatists like the Pilgrims used for those who didn't share their beliefs] in their midst, there was no other way. They must "become a body politic, using amongst yourselves civil government," i.e., they must all agree to submit to the laws drawn up by their duly elected officials. Just as a spiritual covenant had marked the beginning of their congregation in Leiden, a civil covenant would provide the basis for a secular government in America...
What Robinson foresaw as he said goodbye to his congregants is that while his flock might well remain separated from others in belief, societies in which not all share those beliefs must find ways to function together in a civil society.

Many Christians in American today call for the revival of the United States as a "Christian nation." But even a look at this small slice of US history demonstrates that the Pilgrims' idea of what constituted a Christian community or society differs from what many in the modern US would identify as "Christian." In other words, when you go back to American beginnings, you find that the Pilgrims, among the first European Christians to settle here, didn't want to force their faith down others' throats. The Pilgrims were Biblically pious and utterly intent on following God as they saw fit. And yet, contrary to the laws that prevailed in England, they decided to establish a secular government in which all (at least all white males at that time) could be involved. Like the Dutch among whom they had lived before coming to America, they even made marriage a civil, rather than a religious, ceremony.

I'm a Lutheran Christian filled with an evangelical passion. Evangelical comes from a word found in the Greek in which the New Testament was written, euangelion. It means good news, also rendered in English as gospel. As a follower of Jesus Christ, I want to share the good news about God so loving the world that God the Father gave Jesus, God the Son. to die and rise for fallen humanity and so that all who believe in Jesus will not die, but live with God for eternity.

I want to share my faith in Jesus through words and actions. I want to care for my neighbor, pray for my neighbor, and, when the times present themselves, ask my neighbor to join me in following Jesus. But like Jesus, I have no desire to impose the Christian good news or my faith in Jesus on others. Like Jesus, I want to persuade others of Jesus' Lordship, doing so, as a Christian, in the confidence that my meager efforts will only bear fruit if God the Holy Spirit is involved. True faith comes not through civil coercion (which is why state churches, such as those that exist in Europe, are disastrous for the witness and ministries of the Church), but through Spirit-powered persuasion.

Like the Pilgrims, I want to work and live together in communities and in a country where there are people who disagree with me. And like the Pilgrims, I have no desire to impose the beliefs that flow from my faith onto the laws of our country. My faith will inevitably inform my internal deliberations over public issues, but I want to live in a civil society. The separation of Church and State has largely served the inhabitants of this continent well for centuries now. It has also given evangelical Christians like me the freedom to share the Christian faith and so to see millions persuaded by reason, compassion, and prayer to follow Christ.

Pastor Robinson's advice may have been rooted in pure pragmatism. But, it turns out that the separation of Church and State is a win for both Church and State.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Bravo for you.
Among my most stupid statements, "Theocracy is a dead issue.", ranks near the top. Some 40 years ago I couldn't picture an educated populace falling into that trap.Today it amazes and appalls me that I was so wrong.