The separation of church and state is rooted in the Scripture in the declaration of Jesus: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Mk. 12:17).
It was defined by Roger Williams in the seventeenth century when he referred to a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”
And it was codified in the First Amendment to the constitution which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
I believe in the separation of church and state. However, when we gather to celebrate our nation’s birthday, I want to take another approach. I want to talk about the point at which church and state come together.
The point at which church and state come together is not in our belief in God, for we have many different understandings of God prevailing in America today, and we always have. The point at which church and state come together is not in our understanding of morality, for there is a wide divergence in the ethical knowledge of Americans today, from those who think it is a sin for a woman to wear makeup to those who believe it is a sin for a woman not to wear makeup!
Where church and state come together is not in our theology and not in our morality but our love for and belief in and commitment to freedom.
At the heart of our nation is a commitment to freedom.
The force that compelled our forefathers to come to this land was not only their love for God but their desire for freedom. The power that prompted our forefathers to resist England and establish a new nation was not merely a desire to be good but a desire to be free.
Freedom was one of the inalienable rights mentioned by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, the first right guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, the name given to our nation in the closing phrase of the Star-Spangled Banner.
America is the “land of the free,” a nation which guarantees the right of freedom to all its citizens: the freedom to choose, freedom to think, freedom to speak, freedom to be different, freedom to live.
I read again Patrick Henry’s famous speech, which was delivered in 1775 to the Second Revolutionary Convention of Virginia.
He concluded the speech with these striking words: “Is life so dear and peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
Patrick Henry epitomized the central committee that has driven the grand experiment called the United States — our love for, belief in and commitment to freedom.
Likewise, at the heart of biblical faith is a commitment to freedom.
In the Old Testament, from the time God sent Moses to deliver the Hebrews from slavery to the time God brought back the Hebrews from Babylonian captivity, He has revealed Himself to be a “let-my-people-go” kind of God.
The same is true of the New Testament. Jesus announced freedom as the purpose of His life when He said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives” (Lk. 4:18).
Jesus proclaimed freedom to be the focus of His ministry when He said, For you shall know the truth, and the fact shall make you free” (John 8:32). Paul declared freedom to be the consequence of Jesus’ death when he said, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free.”
The central element of the Christian faith and the predominant purpose of the American politic is to provide freedom. It is at that point, not in support of a particular theology, not in the establishment of an absolute morality, but in favor of freedom that church and state come together.
This raises some probing questions about the freedom that I want to consider.
Question Number One: Do we believe in freedom enough to do what is necessary to experience it?
A young lady said to a famous opera star, “I’d give the world to be able to sing like that.” The opera star responded, “Would you give five hours a day?”
Personal freedom is never free! Instead, it comes as a result of discipline. An Olympian has the freedom to win the race because he has spent years in disciplined preparation. A pianist has the freedom to sit down at the piano and play because she has spent years in disciplined practice.
A Christian has the freedom to live a victorious Christian life because he has spent years in disciplined obedience. Freedom is never free! Freedom comes to a person who has paid the price of discipline and commitment.
Do we believe in freedom enough to do what is necessary to experience it? Then we must oppose complacency, the tendency toward an undisciplined and unmotivated life, for contentment is the enemy of freedom.
Question Number Two: Do we believe in freedom enough to allow others to have it?
There is an interesting exchange between Jesus and His disciples recorded in Luke 9:49-50. The disciple John said to Jesus, “Master, we saw a man driving out demons in your name, and we told him to stop because he doesn’t belong to our group.” Jesus responded, “Do not try to stop him because whoever is not against you is for you.”
(Good News Bible)
It is not enough to demand personal freedom for ourselves. We must also grant own freedom to others even if they are not in our group, even if they do not agree with us, even if they are not like us, also if they do not do things the way we do.
I remember hearing years ago about a group of Christian women in Germany who were discussing the habits of some Christian women in America. When it was reported that some Christian women in America smoked, one of the German Christian women was so shocked she dropped her beer mug!
To demand that others be like us is to presume upon the prerogative of God who made them the way they are and it is to assume upon the right of others to chose how they will live their lives.
Do we believe in freedom enough to allow others to have it? Then we must oppose conformity, the desire by intimidation and accusation to squeeze everyone into the same mold, for compliance is the enemy of freedom.
Question Number Three: Do we believe in freedom enough to support the government when it upholds it?
Our greatest threat is not a government void of religion but a government-controlled by faith. History has taught us that. When faith took control of the government under Charlemagne, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, it led to the death of every Saxon who chose to remain unbaptized.
When religion took control of the Spanish government under General Torquemada in the Spanish Inquisition, 100,000 people were put to death in his 18-year reign, and 10,000 were burned to death. The same lessons were taught by Cromwell’s Puritan England and Khomeini’s Islamic Iran.
Christian control of the American government would not usher in a golden era but would instead guide in new dark ages. For as Baptist ancestor John Leland said, “Experience, the best teacher, has taught us that fondness of magistrates to foster Christianity has done it more harm than all the persecutions ever did.” That’s why our greatest need and our only hope in America today is to have a government that believes in freedom and provides freedom for all people.
Do we believe in freedom enough to support the government when it upholds it? Then we must oppose control, the attempt by any religious group to control the government and determine its policies, for power is the enemy of freedom.
Question Number Four: Do we believe in freedom enough to affirm a faith that allows it?
When you take the element of freedom out of the expression of faith, then you have moved away from Biblical teaching, for biblical teaching involves a free choice.
This was the point at which Jesus consistently conflicted with the religious leaders of His day. A good example is Mark 2:18-20. The religious leaders, observing Jesus’ life of joyfulness and spontaneity which so contrasted to theirs, asked Him the question, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?” (Mark 2:18).
They were asking Jesus, “Why are you so different?” Something is threatening about an innovator, something frightening about change, something risky about freedom.
Consequently, the Pharisees were always trying to coerce people with their rules and regulations. The kind of faith which is so often expressed today, which demands that everyone believe like they think, express their belief in the same terms, and live out their knowledge in the same way, is much closer kin to the Pharisaism which Jesus opposed than the faith which Jesus espoused.
Do we believe in freedom enough to affirm a faith that allows it? Then we must oppose coercion, the demand that everyone think like us and expresses their confidence in our terms, for pressure is the enemy of freedom.
As we struggle with these questions, we understand what George Washington meant in his First Inaugural Address when he said, “It is a strenuous thing, this living the life of a free people.”
Many people today find the burden of freedom too heavy, and the demands of choice too high, so they support a political philosophy and a Christian polity that replaces freedom with a tightly structured, narrowly interpreted, and at times viciously applied a system of control, all in the name of God.
As American citizens and as Christians, we must oppose that trend with all our energy. We must resist coercion in matters of faith. We must fight control of the government. We must dislike conformity in personal relationships. We must resist complacency in our lives. We must support freedom for all people, for as our text suggests: “It was for freedom that Christ set us free.”