Mars Hill Forum #123: Time for a new metaphor to replace “Wall of Separation between Church and State”

John C. Rankin (June 2, 2007)

On April 11, I addressed Mars Hill Forum #123 at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia. My guest was Rev. Barry Lynn, Esq., executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The topic was: What is the Nature of the Separation between Church and State? It was a most collegial event, and Barry was delighted with the honest exchange of ideas of where we agree and disagree. He has written a book challenging the “religious right.”

I said that the nature of the separation between church and state is a metaphor of “a wall of separation” as used by Thomas Jefferson. Metaphors can be very powerful, but powerfully misleading at the same time. I cited the lead authority on the subject of the history and nature of this metaphor, Dr. Daniel Dreisbach of American University (Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State, New York University Press, 2002). Dreisbach demonstrates that the wall of separation was between the state and federal government for the sake of religious liberty, and not to keep religious conviction out of public life. This “wall” metaphor has been used wrongly ever since it was cited in the 1947 Everson v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision (they called it a “high and impregnable” wall — novel language they invented).

Dreisbach cites attempts to come up with other metaphors, such as a line or a garden or a permeable wall. But they are all divisive by assumption and definition. So I suggested to Barry that we need a new and positive metaphor.

Instead of “a wall of separation between church and state,” we need to celebrate “a level playing field for all religious and political ideas” to be heard equally. This is a radically positive biblical idea rooted in the Garden of Eden, one which advances God’s gifts of religious, political and economic liberty for all people equally, and serves to build the kingdom of God. The Gospel is both the source for such liberty, and the Gospel flourishes best in such liberty as it produces fruit that all people are designed to enjoy. It is also the very nature of the Mars Hill Forum series.

Barry was not too keen on agreeing with my diagnosis on the need to change the metaphor. But at the end of the evening, he expressly thanked me for the opportunity to share our differing ideas in an even-handed, thoughtful and gracious way, and he thanked the audience as well. In other words, as I noted in my final comments, he thanked me for having given him a level playing field for his ideas to be heard side by side with my own. He smiled broadly and gave me a robust handshake after the moderator concluded the evening.