One of the great principles on which our nation was founded is freedom of conscience in matters of religious faith. Our founders launched what was, in many ways, a very daring experiment, not least of which was regarding the use of government coercion in matters of religious faith. The constitutional prohibition of a religious test to qualify for public office, as well as the First Amendment prohibition of congressional legislation “respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, were quickly extended from the federal to state jurisdictions in the years following the ratification of the constitution. This process was finally given constitutional authority by the adoption of the Fourteenth amendment on July 9, 1868.
It might surprise many to learn that this principle is firmly rooted in Jesus’ teaching. Until His coming, both the people of Israel and all the other nations of the earth followed some form of the establishment of religion by the state. Church and state were often one and the same or, at least, were controlled by the other. Yes, there was a high degree of religious toleration in a number of societies, such as in the pagan Roman Empire and the empire of Asoka in India after he converted to Buddhism, but there was an official state religion in both of these empires, as well as instances of persecution of certain religious minorities, such as the Christians and the Jains.
Jesus was the first to completely divorce religion from the state. He did so in a number of ways. One of the most obvious was in His reply to the Roman governor’s question, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” Pilate then responds, “You are a king, then!” Jesus replies, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (John 18:36-37)
While some would rush to say that Jesus is not about religion but about a relationship, that is only so if we define the word “religion” in a certain sense. Religion, in its broadest sense, is any belief that offers an answer to one or more of the big questions we face as humans, such as, “Where did we come from?” or “Why do we exist?” or “Where are we going?”. A religion may or may not have a clergy or houses of worship or rituals to perform; all these things are peripheral to the core which is how it answers the ultimate questions to which we as humans desire answers and the way of life those answers imply.
What is clear from Jesus’ answer to Pilate is that He does not rely upon coercion in any form to establish His kingdom among human beings. That means that the best the state can do is not to prohibit Jesus and His followers from speaking the truth. But even if the state does oppose, the followers of Christ will persevere in proclaiming the truth even if they, like their Master, are persecuted and killed. Paul, the Apostle, urges Christians to pray, not that the state would favor their message or fund their activities but that it would leave them in peace to freely proclaim the gospel. (1 Timothy 2:1-7)
For the first two and a half centuries, the Roman Empire persecuted Christians but the Church grew in spite of it. Even when Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, this simply ushered in a period of toleration for Christianity.
Christianity did not become the official state religion of the Roman Empire until 380 under the emperor Theodosius. This was the turning of the tide and from then on until the founding of some of the American colonies, particularly Rhode Island (by the Baptists) and Pennsylvania (by the Friends), Christ’s teaching on the true separation of church and state was ignored. Thankfully, when the American colonists separated from Great Britain, the good example set by these colonies spread within the founding states of the union and was embodied in their federal and state constitutions.
Religion in general and Christianity in particular, thrived under this arrangement. The followers of a religion were alone responsible for the maintenance and growth of their members and institutions. While tax exemptions were granted to religious as well as other non-profit organizations it was provided equally to every self-described religion. This indicated that the state favored religion in general and not any in particular, although a number of nods to the majority religion of Christianity remained, such as opening prayers in Congress (usually by Christian clergy) and the national holiday of Christmas.
Despite this wonderful record of religious freedom in the United States, one that Jesus first proclaimed two thousand years ago, there has grown to be a subtle but substantial exception. It amounts to the virtual establishment of atheism as the state religion. The Trojan horse by which this was accomplished is “methodological naturalism”. This is the idea that science is the search for material or natural causes only. Therefore, any evidence for intelligent design in the origin of the universe or life or the diversification of life is ruled unscientific and religious by definition. It therefore cannot be presented in a public classroom. Moreover, even in the universities, whether public or private, anyone who dares to disagree with this will find their career in academia extremely limited.
Despite this, a fair number of scientists of sterling credentials have called this consensus into question and have coalesced around the Intelligent Design Movement. Their views are vilified as “creationism in a cheap tuxedo” and their actual and quite substantial evidence and arguments are ignored. What is astonishing about this is that the founding document of our nation, the Declaration of Independence, was written by a believer in intelligent design, Thomas Jefferson, who expresses that belief in its text. To be clear, the Intelligent Design Movement rejects any move to require the public school system to present its evidence or arguments. Rather, their appeal is to the scientific community and the informed public and it is there that they make their case. At most, they call for an end to teaching a falsehood, namely, that a purely natural and materialistic account of the origins of the universe, life and life’s diversity, has been scientifically established as fact. The atheistic account of creation deserves no more privilege in our public schools than those of any other religion.
Perhaps it is time to reassert this precious freedom and the true separation of church and state.