When reading about the Anabaptists last week, I started thinking about separation of church and state, an idea the Anabaptists held in Europe when it was practically unthinkable. The idea of separation of church and state is still a hot issue in America. It seems that no one wants the state running their church, but plenty would be ok with their church running the state. But with more than 30,000 different kinds of Protestantism, let alone other Christians or other religions, it would be mighty tricky to figure out which church’s values get to run the country. We credit the idea of this separation to Jefferson, but really, Jesus supported it as well. One of the main reasons Jews don’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah is that the Messiah is expected to become a great ruler on earth. But Jesus didn’t seek earthly political power because his kingdom wasn’t a plot of land. His kingdom is above politics. In fact, he advised to “render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and render unto God that which belongs to God.” That means, pay your taxes, be a member of society, just make sure you’re living the virtuous life as well.
The early Christians could never have imagined Rome becoming a Christian state. They knew Rome was not going to tolerate a monotheism that spoke of another king, promoted evangelicalism, and sounded kinda cannibalistic. So they met in secret. But they didn’t deny their faith, living one way at church and another in public. They died for living as Christians. I think Chinese Christians (and Saudi and North Korean and many, many others) today can relate to the struggle of worshipping in secret but also trying to live their faith honestly. (I know that by not being able to relate to it, I am very blessed.)
But even in a country that promotes religious tolerance before anything else in its Bill of Rights, it’s still difficult to figure out what should be kept private and what belongs to be expressed publicly. When is keeping quiet against the faith? When is promoting one’s faith persecuting another? Should we get rid of the Ten Commandments in front of courthouses? Probably. Should we take “In God We Trust” off the money? Probably. But since I’m a Christian, I’m not really going to promote change, just not argue with those who want it. The First Amendment says that the government will not support any religion over another, and that the citizens are free to worship however they want. Now, I would love if the government decided, “No, we’re going to be united under one faith. Everyone needs to believe this.” It would certainly make a more cohesive culture. But I probably wouldn’t love is so much if “Everyone needs to believe this” meant “Everyone is Mormon now.” Or Sikh. Or Taoist. Or atheist. That’s why the First Amendment exists. People fled to America to get away from state-run churches, so America’s foundation is one built on a government that provides collective safety but promotes individualism.
People complain we have strayed from our (Puritanical) roots. But I think a country of various individuals believing whatever they want, seeking God or safety or money, is exactly our roots. The only problem I see with this is that America lacks a strongly defined culture. We often use the word freedom as a one-word catchphrase to describe America. But freedom means lots of people living lots of different beliefs and values, only united by geography. There is often a lack of community and duty when fellow citizens are the “others” and individualism is prized above all. But, I think to be American, you have to decide that the freedom is worth the chaos and hate and bickering and misunderstanding.
I don’t know what it’s like to actually feel my life in danger because of my faith. I know what it’s like to be misunderstood by individuals, to be told I’m wrong and probably going to hell, to be the butt of jokes. But that’s different from actual violence. Separation of church and state doesn’t mean the state is anti-church or that the church should be anti-state; it just means, “Hey, let’s not kill one another over this. That’s what those bourgeois Europeans did.”
The key isn’t merging church and state, but using our freedom wisely. Pope John Paul II said, “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” To be able to freely practice our faith, we have to allow others the freedom to practice theirs. We should use our freedom to outwardly live and celebrate our faith, to fight for our brothers and sisters who face real persecution, and convert others through loving neighborliness rather than threats and swords.