Mars Hill Forum #123: Church & State

John C. Rankin

On April 11, 2007, I addressed Mars Hill Forum #123 at Patrick Henry College with Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, looking at this issue. Barry responded well, though not agreeing that the metaphor of “the wall of separation between church and state” needs to be changed. We found no stated disagreements in terms of history or biblical ethics – it was more a matter of a different political prism we each hold, where both of us say no to state-established religion (but beyond that have great disagreements on theology, issues and policies). I argued that “the wall of separation” is a negative metaphor, and only divides; my proposal is for the positive metaphor of “a level playing field” for all religious and political ideas. Here is my prepared text for the evening (with some slight edits).


Good evening in the name of Jesus, the incarnate God of the Bible, Yahweh Elohim. This greeting is appropriate for me to give in any setting where people yearn for religious, political and economic liberty – for these liberties are part of the unalienable rights upon which this nation is founded. Historically, unalienable rights have only one Source – the God of the Bible, and they are given in the biblical order of creation. And I desire and pray for all people to enjoy these liberties equally. Of necessity, we need this foundation to address our question tonight: “What is the Nature of the Separation between Church and State?”

To wit: the nature is rooted in the simple metaphor of a wall, and metaphors can be wonderfully instructive, and as easily misleading. Dr. Daniel Dreisbach of American University, in his definitive work, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State, focuses on the nature of the metaphor as Jefferson and others used it.

Tonight I will seek to define the use of this metaphor, and why I consider it a poor one to begin with, even before it was later misused. It is both reactive and negative in nature. Then I will propose a new metaphor, which is proactive and positive in nature. It is also quintessentially radical, being rooted in the biblical order of creation and the person of Jesus.

I am particularly interested to see what my colleague Barry Lynn thinks of my metaphor, for indeed, his organization, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, roots its identity in its interpretation of the metaphor, “a wall of separation.”

On January 1, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson answered a letter from the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut. The Baptists were grateful for his election in the bitterly contested 1800 campaign against President John Adams. They highly regarded Jefferson’s well-known views on religious liberty.

Adams was vociferously supported by the New England Congregationalist clergy establishment, which was in lockstep with political Federalism, and they called Jefferson an infidel and atheist. The Congregationalists came from the Puritans and had some excellent original theology, especially in terms of the concept of vocation or “calling,” and the economic power it unleashed still blesses this nation. But it also had a central weakness, seeking to establish an earthly theocracy, where all citizens in Massachusetts and Connecticut in the 17th century either had to be Congregationalist, or by the force of state taxes, they had to support the Congregational Church.

Later, non-Congregationalists were exempted from these taxes, so long as they verifiably attended some other Christian church. But the Baptists complained that this was only a human privilege of “toleration” being given by the establishment – truly a condescending negative. They rightly wanted equal access to the unalienable right of religious liberty – a true positive for all people.

In his letter of response to the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson saw that it was published widely and immediately, taking advantage of the opportunity to strike back at the Congregationalist clergy and the Federalist political establishment, a) to rebut the charge he was an infidel and atheist, and b) to advance the cause of Republicanism – that is, the preeminence of state’s rights in view of a limited federal government. He used language that kept the federal government out of institutional religion, lauded freedom of conscience in religious matters, and then used the famous metaphor: “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State…” The letter was not wholly satisfactory to the Danbury Baptists, but largely so, even as Jefferson used it for his own purposes.

Jefferson was quoting the First Amendment before using the metaphor, yet he was in France at the time of its composition and ratification from 1787 through 1791. Thus his metaphor is neither constitutional nor should it be legally definitive. And, unlike much modern interpretive gloss, it does not separate political and religious life.

As the exegesis of Dr. Dreisbach sustains, Jefferson referred to a wall of separation between the federal government on the one hand, and state government and the institutional church on the other. It was not a wall separating religious life and political life. Though he rightly opposed an established Anglican church in his native Virginia, nonetheless as Governor he signed “A Proclamation Appointing a Day of Publick and Solemn Thanksgiving and Prayer” in November, 1779. He opposed the federal government doing the same, and thus was charged by Adams and the Federalists of being an infidel and atheist. In other words, he was acting as a partisan Republican against partisan Federalists. The texture of reality is not so facile as it might otherwise appear.

Now I say he rightly opposed a state established church, based on principles of religious liberty. But even yet, as President he did not seek to have the Congress require the same of Massachusetts and Connecticut, both of which still had state establishment of the Congregational Church. He believed it was a state issue to resolve, not a federal one, and as it turned out, it was resolved within two decades. The Danbury Baptists wanted disestablishment, not the language of a wall of separation, and even though Jefferson agreed in principal, he was not a Federalist, and did not appease them here by interfering with state politics.

Jefferson’s wall was not regarded as anything definitive by his peers, and largely fell out of the public eye, apart from a fleeting appearance in 1879. But in 1947, in the Everson v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court Decision, Justice Hugo Black quoted the metaphor and added something novel to it. It was something both non-Jeffersonian and non-constitutional, saying such a wall should be “high and impregnable.” Americans United for Separation of Church and State was founded the same year; and ever since then, the wall metaphor has been used by them and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) et al. to separate much government and religion in a sense that is foreign to Jefferson’s purpose. As some scholars say, it is the wall that Hugo Black built.

But at the prior level, how does the wall metaphor actually apply to the substance of the First Amendment itself?

The First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Against a backdrop of nationally established churches in Europe, the Anglican Church in England, the Roman Catholic Church in France and the Lutheran Church in Germany, for example, the seeds of religious liberty grew well in the Colonies and nascent United States. In the one and a half centuries from the Puritans in Plymouth, and through the power of the First Great Awakening, the finest fruit of the Reformation began to take hold by the time of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the First Amendment in 1787 – no political coercion in religion. Laws only apply to actions, even as Jefferson stated in his Danbury letter just prior to what I quoted earlier: “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions…”

Critically here, the First Amendment is a restriction on the federal government, and for the sake of protecting the four liberties that follow. There is no restriction on religion, even as established by a state (and if a person did not like one state’s established religion, he or she could freely move to another state). The federal government shall make no laws setting up an established institutional church, which would be discriminatory, and this is what “establishment of religion” means. On such a basis, it shall not prohibit the freedom of religion, whether in the individual conscience or the freedom of people to form an institutional church. The federal government shall have no veto powers over the church, and since no institutional church is established by the United States, none has a privileged position to make demands of the federal government. This is a type of natural distinction, but not for the sake of a “high and impregnable” wall of opposing camps with the federal government as master; but for the sake of a mutual cooperation in the pursuit of religious, political and economic liberties.

What this means is that all people are equally free to participate in political life, based explicitly on what they believe, whether as Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, pagans, atheists or otherwise – so long as we all honor the equal access to political life and argument for those who believe otherwise, all within the rule of law.

Too, if Hugo Black’s “high and impregnable wall” were literally in view in the First Amendment text, then as the syntax would then make clear, any range of particular religious expression can be banned or severely limited in government. Thus likewise, speech, the press, public assembly and redress of the government can also be banned or severely limited. The First Amendment is clear – religious liberty is the first freedom; and only when we are free to believe what we choose, do we then have the freedom to speak those beliefs, publish those beliefs, assemble on the basis of those beliefs, and critically, to redress and challenge government policies based on those beliefs.

Earlier I said that the metaphor of “a wall of separation” is reactive and negative. Any wall that isolates is by definition negative. But history also shows why negatives happen – this is the nature of war, even a just war waged to protect the innocent. But ultimately, if we only react to the reactions or negatives of others, we will all drown in the same miserable soup. Hugo Black’s “high and impregnable” wall of separation was crafted against a long historical backdrop of religious intolerance, and hopefully none of us here want such intolerance.

So, how and where can the proactive and positive gain the greater influence?

Here the language of Jefferson is helpful – as the scribe for the Committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, even as the heterodox rationalist he was.

In the Declaration, we read these words: “WE hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed…”

By definition, “unalienable rights” are those rights which human government cannot define, give or take away. They can only be acknowledged as prior to and greater than the existence of human government, and which human government must serve. Jefferson and his colleagues knew that by appealing to the Creator, that King George III could not trump them in any way – for though he was violating the lives, liberties and property rights of the Colonists, and could lay claim as the highest human authority for the British Colonies, even as the humanly defined head of the Anglican Church, he could not trump the God of the Bible. Thus, Jefferson the rationalist, Franklin the deist becoming a theist, Paine the “freethinker” and the other 53 signatories – the vast majority of whom were actively or formally orthodox Protestants, with one bold Roman Catholic in their midst – they all agreed on a theological and historical point of reference.

No pagan religion or secular construct has ever conceived of such unalienable rights. In pagan religions, the gods and goddesses beat up on each other and on us – the very opposite of unalienable rights. In the Epicurean swerve that presaged Darwinian macroevolution, the universe does not know we exist, spits us forth and swallows us up with no concept of unalienable rights. The deism of the Enlightenment is likewise impotent – being a philosophical idea of an amorphous and ahistorical deity that has no articulation or concept of unalienable rights.

The unalienable rights were expressed in the Declaration with a Jeffersonian philosophical flair – “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” In the Fifth and Fourteen Amendments, they are legally more precise in the third instant, “life, liberty and property.” The liberties in view are codified in the First Amendment – religion, speech, the press, assembly and redress of grievances; and summarily covered in the arenas of religious, political and economic liberty.

Thus, Jefferson would only view the First Amendment through the prism of unalienable rights given by the Creator – a radically theological idea, and his “wall of separation” can have nothing to do with separating religion from political life. It was a reference to his bottom-up Republican view of the federal and state governments, in contrast to the top-down Federalist view.

This being the case, and given our love for metaphors in human communication to sum up something as historically intricate as the First Amendment, what is a positive metaphor to serve its first freedom, of religion, and its cognate four freedoms?

In Genesis 1-2, we find the biblical order of creation. It precedes and defines the fall into sin – best defined as broken trust – which is then introduced in Genesis 3. And the promise of redemption, also introduced in Genesis 3, seeks to restore us to the original good trajectory of the order of creation.

We have two choices in life. Give and it will be given, or take before you are taken. This contest is most importantly a question of power – the power to give versus the power to take. Giving is proactive; taking is reactive.

The only place in written history where the proactive and positive power to give are fully present, and unpolluted by broken trust, war, disease etc., is Genesis 1-2. And here the content of unalienable rights is rooted, even while its language is not technically used – for indeed, “unalienable” is a double negative compound word, and there is no negative to negate in the biblical order of creation. Rather, we have the positive gifts that precede and define the rights we redemptively call unalienable.

Human life is made in the image of God, human freedom is given in the first words to the first man by the sovereign Yahweh Elohim, and we are given the stewardship over the creation to work, produce, prosper and be free in the buying, selling, trading and bartering of our property – all as original gifts of God, and all of which lead to true happiness within the human community in God’s sight. Life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness.

Crucially here, we have the only proactive definition of human freedom in history. In Genesis 2:15-17, we are given a level playing field to choose between life and death, good and evil, truth and falsehood. The language used here, in the Hebrew, is itself a great metaphor, “in feasting you will continually feast” from an unlimited menu of good choices, versus “in dying you will continually die” if we eat the forbidden fruit.

How many people here tonight do not like the idea of a never-ending banquet to enjoy with your friends and family, with an unlimited menu of good choices? This is the biblical definition of freedom. Thus, we are all theologically united, and I have discovered that the same is true even among pagans and secularists.

This is also the radical nature of the biblical order of creation – nowhere in pagan religious origin texts or secular constructs are both good and evil placed side by side, with the freedom given to choose between the two, with the long range confidence that truth will rise to the top, and with the power of the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus to ensure its final possibility for those who believe. This leads us into great and detailed theological territory beyond my available time. But in essence, we cannot be free to say yes to God unless we are first free to say no. This is the freedom of dissent, though we will always reap what we sow. As it says in the RSSV (that is, the Rankin Sub-Standard Version), “God so loved the world that he gave us each the freedom to go to hell if we damn well want to.” And I am not using “hell” gratuitously, for as Jesus says, people choose darkness because they know their deeds are evil, and do not want to come into the light, the light that defines the kingdom of God.

One radical element here is that Yahweh Elohim gives the ancient serpent, Satan himself, a level playing field access to the Garden to tempt Adam and Eve. Only truth can get away with such hospitality. As well, the theocracies under the Law of Moses, and under Jesus when he returns, are both communities of choice. There is no such thing as an imposed theocracy in the Bible – “Choose this day whom you will serve” says Joshua.

Jesus follows the same during Passover Week, where he offers a level playing field for his sworn enemies to rake him over the coals with their toughest questions. And by being proven blameless in the process, thus able to die for us as the spotless Lamb of God, the use of the level playing field is the basis for our salvation. Interestingly, when Jesus came into Jerusalem that week as the Son of David, the anointed heir of the founding king of Jerusalem, it is the most explosive church-state debate in history, because of King Herod the Tetrarch’s fears, and of his religious and political sycophants.

The Jewish religious elite had been bought off by Herod the Great from 20 B.C. on following, building them a temple more magnificent than that of Solomon, from whence they derived great wealth and power and status. But it came with a price – they had to agree not to interfere with the Roman political order, to raise questions concerning social justice or mercy outside the temple walls. That was truly a “high and impregnable wall,” and Jesus challenged such an idolatry head on. He won the debate hands down, then instead of taking political authority, he suffered and died and rose for us, so we who are Christians are to announce the coming of the true politics, the kingdom of God, using earthly politics to advance religious, political and economic liberty for all people equally, as a taste and invitation to the age to come.

Well, this covers much territory, and we have just skimmed the surface. What can we glean, and what is the positive metaphor we can define?

The reigning metaphor is the “wall of separation between church and state.” It is reactive and negative in essence, rooted in the power to take before being taken, and it has been wrongly used since 1947 to restrict religious liberty, where the First Amendment liberties of religious expression have been systematically purged from much of political, governmental, academic and cultural life. And invariably, the cognate First Amendment liberties have also been injured. This purging has been heavily weighted against biblically rooted Christianity. The “wall of separation” language assumes a war, and as such, the war will never end. It separates and does not unify our nation. It is the opposite of e pluribus unum – “out of the many, one.”

The reigning metaphor is the “wall of separation between church and state.” It is reactive and negative in essence, rooted in the power to take before being taken, and it has been wrongly used since 1947 to restrict religious liberty, where the First Amendment liberties of religious expression have been systematically purged from much of political, governmental, academic and cultural life. And invariably, the cognate First Amendment liberties have also been injured. This purging has been heavily weighted against biblically rooted Christianity. The “wall of separation” language assumes a war, and as such, the war will never end. It separates and does not unify our nation. It is the opposite of e pluribus unum – “out of the many, one.”

The healthy metaphor would be “a level playing field for all religious and political ideas.” In this proactive and positive paradigm, based on the biblical power to give, and rooted in the essence of the Declaration, the checks and balances on power in the Constitution, and in the liberties of the First Amendment, we maximize freedom.

But there is a rub that I suggest lies at the core of the debate. The only Source for these liberties are found in the unalienable rights given by the God of the Bible, and people who do not want to honor the Creator, or who have been burned by impositional religion, fear that an acknowledgement of this Source will permit religionists, especially “Bible thumpers,” to shove religion down their throats.

The only Source for unalienable rights is also the only Source for the freedom of religion, and opposition to imposition against the human will is uniquely found in the biblical order of creation. And this is not a partisan religious or institutionally religious sentiment. The biblical order of creation is fully Christian and pre-Christian, fully Jewish and pre-Jewish, fully and universally human, tracing back to the one Creator. As the apostle Paul said to the skeptical Athenians on Mars Hill, “he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.” Therefore, those of us who are truly biblical begin first with the essence of the power to give, which as Jesus taught us, is to treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated. We advance the Gospel in the actions of our lives which honor and do not harm the lives, liberties and properties of others – and thus invite people to consider what they believe, and what best leads to such cherished unalienable rights.

It is a contest of the power to give versus the power to take, and for too long both church and state have majored in the power to take before being taken. The biblical motif is the power to give a level playing field for all ideas to be heard equally, rooted in the Garden of Eden, and with Jesus during Passover Week in the face of his enemies, where first we want to be sure others are listened to before we wish to be heard. This has been the project of the Mars Hill Forums for 14 years now.

We have two choices in life: give and it will be given, or take before you are taken.    And we have two choices of metaphor in American religious and political life: a level playing field versus a wall of separation.

I choose the level playing field, and if enough of the church were to do likewise, the nation would be transformed in the name of Jesus, and more people than ever would be attracted to his person and the kingdom of God into which he invites all of us.

Thank you.