Forum presents varied Christian views of church-state relations

Communications Staff — October 10, 2003

How high a wall should separate church and state?

Four panelists attempted to provide a Christian answer to this vital contemporary question in a Sept. 18 symposium at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

The panelists argued four different views ranging from a strict separation of church from the state to the government’s acknowledging and actively working with the church.

The symposium was co-sponsored by Boyce College and the Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement and featured seminary president R. Albert Mohler Jr., Richard Land, Hollyn Hollman, Tom Nettles, and E. David Cook. Russell D. Moore, executive director of the Henry Institute, and Boyce College Dean Jerry Johnson moderated the discussion.

More than 500 students listened as the panelists interacted and debated their views. Hollman, who is general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee on Public affairs, was impressed by the overall presentation of the symposium.

“The turnout was impressive,” she said. “The symposium was well-planned and promoted. It was refreshing to participate in a forum where the time restraints were not so strict as to reduce important points to slogans.

“It offered a good opportunity for the students to hear different perspectives and to begin exploring the important concerns behind those differences. The relationship between religion and government deserves continuing, thoughtful attention. This forum was a positive step in that direction.”

Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention presented the accomodationist view, arguing that Christians have a responsibility to offer a Scriptural perspective in public policy debates.

Christians should not, however, advocate state-sponsored religion because state-sponsored religion inevitably compromises the Gospel message, he said.

“We believe that as Christians that we have a worldview that is informed by Holy Scripture. We have a right to express our religious convictions in the public square, and we have a right to bring our religious convictions to bear on the public policy issues of the day. And if we can convince enough Americans that we’re right, we have the right to have that legislated,” Land said.

When believers engage the culture with a Christian worldview, he said, they have the potential to impact society powerfully.

“Every major social evil in our society that has been corrected has been corrected because people of profound religious faith took their religious convictions into the public marketplace and said, ‘This is wrong. This is sinful. This should be illegal,”‘ Land said. “That was true with the abolitionists. It was true with child labor. It was true with labor reform. And in the lifetime of many of us, it was true with the civil rights revolution.”

It is important though, to draw a distinction between Christians impacting culture and government-sponsored religion, Land said. Government-sponsored religion inevitably will corrupt the Gospel and run contrary to the consciences of some citizens.

Sharing the Gospel is the responsibility of individuals, not the government, Land said.

“It’s our job to teach the Bible. It’s our job to propagate the faith. And when people are then changed, they have the right to bring their religious convictions into the public marketplace of ideas and to express their faith,” he said.

“Religion is too important, faith is too important to let government get its hands on it. It will always squeeze the life out of it. It will always foul it up. I can guarantee you that it will never be the Gospel as we understand it that is proclaimed.”

Ultimately, Christians must recognize that appropriate church-state relations involve Christians impacting culture through the democratic process, Land said.

Representing the strict separationist position, Hollman, argued that Christians should seek to uphold both the free exercise and the anti-establishment clauses of the First Amendment.

By advocating both a free church and a state that maintains neutrality toward religion, Christians can assure maximum protection of religious liberty, she said.

“For theological reasons, we believe in a free church and a free state,” Hollman said. “Of course, this is at the core of who we are. We are created in God’s image, free and responsible to God. We believe that the freedom of the individual to exercise choice in religion is essential, and the separation of the institutions of church and state is indispensable for ensuring liberty.”

Because of the free exercise clause, it is perfectly acceptable for religion to interact with government on many occasions, she said. Examples of appropriate interaction between government and religion would include Bible clubs in public high schools and students expressing Christian viewpoints in class.

The anti-establishment clause, however, prevents the government from lending any support to religion, Hollman said.

“Some suggest that government support for religion should be permitted so long as no religion is favored over another and no citizen is forced to participate. But the weight of the evidence suggests that the framers considered that approach and they rejected it,” she said.

In fact, Hollman said, state support of Christianity—such as that advocated by Alabama Supreme Court justice, Roy Moore—tends to undermine evangelism.

“I think we could look at the Ten Commandments debate as a prime example … Have you ever met anyone who came to know Christ because they saw a monument that was of the government where the government had decided what monument to promote and to put Scripture on it? Maybe you have, but I don’t think that is the way we promote evangelism and real religion.”

But Mohler said Christians must beware of any state that claims to be neutral toward religion.

“There is no such thing as religious neutrality,” Mohler said. “There never has been such a condition, there never will be such a condition. It is because the worldview is always religious or irreligious in whatever mixture of the individual conscience.

“There is either allegiance to or hostility to the truth claims of the various spiritual, religious, theological arguments being made at any time.”

Mohler cited the 1992 Supreme Court case Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey as an example of the lack of neutrality. In that case, justices admitted that the definition of life is an inherently theological concept and therefore had no warrant to take a position.

Mohler pointed out that by not taking a position, the court took a position. Christians must be willing to argue their worldview on such issues in the public square even in the face of charges that they are attempting to establish Christianity as the dominant religion, he said.

“The problem is, there is no neutrality and so, if for instance, to say that marriage means a man and a woman, not a man and a man or a woman and a woman, if that is to claim a special privilege for Christianity, hear me making that claim,” Mohler said. “Because I am going to make that argument in the public square.”

Nettles, professor of historical theology at Southern Seminary, took the separationist position, arguing that, above all else, the church should guard the deposit of Gospel truth God has given it.

The law of God—the 10 Commandments—should not be used as an external symbol or historical monument in the vein of Moore’s controversial display in Alabama, because God did not give the law for that purpose, Nettles said.

Instead, the commandments should be proclaimed by the church as a standard of righteousness that reveals sin and leads sinners to see their need of a savior. It also serves as the standard of sanctification for the believer, he said.

Russell D. Moore said an important part of the church-state argument being made by Roy Moore and other Christians is that U.S. law is built upon the 10 Commandments. Russell D. Moore is executive director for the Henry Institute and serves as assistant professor of theology at Southern Seminary.

“The argument that is being made is that the 10 Commandments are indeed foundational to the American system of justice, that you don’t have an American system of justice that is simply being created ex-nihilo, it is based upon something,” Moore said.

“That is one of the arguments that is being made for, not only a monument in the state house in Montgomery, which may or may not be wise, but other monuments…[such as the monument of the 10 Commandments] in the [U.S.] Supreme Court building itself.”

Cook argued for the acknowledgement view of church and state relations. According to this understanding, the church and state may work together to bring about the betterment of society. Cook is professor of Christian Ethics at Southern Seminary and lives in England, where the Anglican Church is the official state church.

Cook asserted that the church and state should work together, that the government may look to the church to find the impetus for teaching morality and religion in public schools. In answer to the question “how high the wall of separation between church and state?” Cook answered, “Let’s break down the wall because Jesus is Lord of all.”

“That’s why at the heart of British education, there is religious education,” Cook said. “There is religious worship at the very heart, an opportunity for believers to take that formal (religion) and make it real, to make it living, to make it vital [and] transforming.”

Cook said the Christian voice must be heard loud and clear in the public square including the arena of government.

“I believe it is vital for us not to withdraw from the world, not to live in a bubble, not to create a ghetto mentality, but to be engaged to be salt and light to show the Lordship of Christ really at work in society,” he said.

Mohler issued a closing challenge to pastors on the issue of church-state relations. The debate is a critical one and must be handled thoughtfully and with intellectual and biblical integrity.

“[As Christians] we ought not to speak about the Constitution if we have not read it,” he said. “Christian ignorance is an abysmal sin. I hope that what has begun tonight is a conversation and a process of learning and study that will lead you to the sources, lead you to read, to investigate, to debate this.

“…I hope it begins a debate in the public square of America and in our churches as well where we desperately need to have a reasonable, intelligent, illuminating conversation about these things so that we can be faithful Christian citizens.”

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