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A Church Free to Serve. Author John M. Swomley on maintaining the separation of church and state as a way of protecting and empowering both. From: Christian Social Action, June 1996


A Church Free to Serve

The Christian emphasis on servanthood and liberation is a major root of the concept of separation of church and state                                                                                                                           


by John M. Swomley

The Rev. Dr. John M. Swomley, Professor Emeritus of Christian Social Ethics at St. Paul School of Theology, Kansas City, is a Christian Social Action contributing editor.


The phrase “separation of church and state” and the reality it represents are both under attack by religious groups that seek political influence over government. Ironically, they make the claim of biblical inspiration and even the inerrancy of the scriptures, without realizing that separation of church and state is biblically and theologically based.

Probably the most dramatic statement rejecting the merging of religion with governmental authority was made by Jesus to his disciples:

“You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; for whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:41).

Matthew amplified the rejection of a governmental or political power role in describing Jesus’ temptation experiences. Satan told Jesus he would give him all the kingdoms of this world, or, in other words, make him Caesar, if he would accept Satan’s lordship and his methods. When Jesus rejected the temptation, he also repudiated any idea of being like Caesar (Matthew 4:7-10).

There are two implication here: (1) that achieving political power in or over government necessarily involves substantial compromise with evil; (2) that the goal of political power is the opposite of Jesus’ mission “to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty those who are oppressed. . . (Luke 4:18).


Emphasis on Servanthood, Liberation

This emphasis on servanthood and liberation is a major root of the concept of separation of church and state. The church can only be free to serve if it does not participate in the power that rules.

Jesus made the contrast between church and state abundantly clear in numerous statements that his kingdom was not like the kingdoms of this world (John 17:10, Luke 17:21). He also rejected a role in the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6-7), and even rejected the messianic designation of “Son of David” (Mark 12:35-37).

Furthermore, he refused to act the part of a judge in a civil or family dispute (Luke 12:13-14). Although Jesus never condemned secular government as such, he made it clear that his followers should think of themselves as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

Thus, the second root of separation of church and state is in Jesus’ concept of two kingdoms: the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God. The Latin term for “this world” or “this age” is saeculum, from which we derive our English word “secular.” The early Christians lived in the secular world, but their loyalty was to the Kingdom of God.

When Jesus appeared before the Roman governor, Pilate, he indicated that his authority and the nature of his kingship was not of this world or like earthly political authority, which was typified by the power of Rome (John 18:33-38).

Perhaps the clearest indication of Jesus’ attitude toward government was the way his followers operated in the years following the crucifixion. They had no distinctive political program. Their “new society was international, pacific, and ready to minister to human need wherever it was found” (Alan Richardson, The Political Christ, p.68). Moreover, there was “no such thing as a distinctively Christian moral system” which it wanted to impose on society. “Pharisaic type legal ism is avoided; salvation is not earned by fulfilling a code of morals” (Richardson p. 71).

Does this mean that Christians today should not run for political office or accept positions of political leadership in local, state or national government? Not at all. What it does mean is that they ought not to identify their political agenda with Christianity or the Christian mission. A journalist, John B. Judis, has written:


Christianity does not provide a political agenda, but rather an underlying social conscience with which to approach politics. Religion plays its most constructive role precisely when church and state are separate. When the two are fused, how ever, when organizations acting in the name of Christianity seek political power, then religion becomes subordinate to politics. It becomes infected with the darker egoism of group and nation; it no longer softens and counters our ungenerous impulses, but clothes them in holy righteousness.


Spiritual Authority Exemplified in Jesus

Jesus never saw his mission as perfecting the state or nation in which he lived by advocating laws to improve it, or laws to punish those who broke the laws that did exist. Unlike present day Christian moralizers who want laws against abortion or against homosexuals, Jesus never mentioned these. His goal was not to provide a blueprint for a political commonwealth or moral society. Instead of seeking political power, he was concerned with and exemplified spiritual authority.

The Russian philosopher and theologian Nicolas Berdyaev has a beautiful comment on moralism. He wrote:

“Christian morality is different from the morality of this world. ‘He that is without sin among you, let him cast a stone at her.’ But the moralists of this world, the champions of the pharisaic ethics of law, regard it as their duty to throw a stone at the sinner.”


Jesus’ intent was not to punish sinners but to affirm them as persons capable of living on a higher plane. There is a difference between trying to “beat the hell” out of a wrong doer and inspiring that person to choose a healthy or whole some way of life. The church’s function is not to associate salvation with fear of the police but with involvement in a community that empowers people instead of controlling them.

The church ought to be that community. When a person gets into a group that is integrated on a higher level of living, purpose, and mission, a change of heart and life is more likely to occur than putting that same person in prison with those accepting a lower level of purpose for their lives.

Although government necessarily must protect society from those who endanger others, it is not the Christian mission to demand more prisons to punish more people but to change social systems as well as persons so that fewer people are alienated from other human beings.


New Covenant Established

Instead of the old covenant exemplified in a theocratic society, which merged the state and religion, Jesus established a new covenant for the developing church. That church was a completely voluntary society whose leadership was spiri­tual. It had no army because its weapons, defense, and leadership are spiritual. It has no police force to search out evildoers or to punish them. The Apostle Paul put it this way:


“As for those who try to make your life a misery, bless them. Don’t curse, bless. Share the happiness of those who are happy, and the sorrow of those who are sad. Live in harmony with one another. Don’t become snobbish but take a real interest in ordinary people. Don’t become set in your own opinions. Don’t pay back a bad turn by a bad turn to anyone. See that your public behavior is above criticism. As far as your responsibility goes, live at peace with everyone. Never take vengeance into your own hands; stand back and let God punish if he will. . . If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him to drink. .. .Don’t allow yourself to be overpowered by evil. Take the offensive -- overpower evil with good” (J.B. Phillips, The New Testament in Modern English, Romans 12:14-21).


Christian morality, like genuine religion, cannot be en forced by the state. No one can be compelled to be religious. Christians must not only choose to be a part of the “kingdom of God,” but of the group, society or church that will meet their spiritual needs and help them push forward the liberating purpose of the beloved community. By the same token they must not seek to coerce others to be religious. The essence of true religion is voluntary membership and loyalty that is freely given. The mission of any group is hindered by nominal members who lack loyalty or enthusiasm.


A church or denomination which is not truly free from government support or endorsement is not free to criticize and therefore correct unjust government or secular leadership.


State Church Not a Free Church

A state church or a state-financed or endorsed church is not a free church. In a society or state with hundreds of different religions or institutions of religion, the state should be neutral, not favoring one sect or religion over others. Nor can it endorse one religion or all religions as if all are of value to the state and expected to conform to the current “patriotism.” A church or denomination which is not truly free from government support or endorsement is not free to criticize and therefore correct unjust government or secular leadership.

It is always possible that Christians may decide to resist bad laws or to resist the state’s intervention in religion or its demands for political support. Jesus’ idea of the kingdom of this world as being different from the Kingdom of God is eternally valid.

Separation is essential to permit voluntarism to flourish. The following reasons summarize why churches today should favor separation of church and state:

▪ It is theologically necessary to recognize that citizenship in and loyalty to the Kingdom of God is different in nature from citizenship in any nation.

▪ It is essential also to recognize that God is not a tribal or national god. Christianity has a world mission that is compromised by or suffers from identification with one nation’s military occupation of other nations, or with a nation’s unjust laws or lack of respect for human rights.

   Separation prevents the government from determining church policy, whether directly or indirectly.

▪ Separation does not permit churches to seek special privileges from government that are denied to minority religious groups and to non-religious citizens.

▪ Churches are healthier and stronger if they assume responsibility both for financing their own programs and for stimulating their members to accept that responsibility.

▪ Separation does not permit government agencies such as the public schools to hold religious celebrations or prayer services and thus discriminate against or otherwise offend those in a captive audience whose religious convictions are different. In that way separation prevents the development of divisiveness, antagonism to religion or to its proponents.

▪ By operating independently of government aid, the churches deny to government the imposition of compulsory taxes on believers and non-believers alike. The churches thus avoid the resentment of those who do not want to be forced to contribute to churches to which they do not belong and of their own members who do not welcome being forced to contribute through government taxation.

▪ Government sponsorship of religious activity tends to secularize the activity rather than make government more ethical or religious. Prayer at the dedication of a missile silo does not make the weapon less deadly.


Principles of the New Nation

When the United States was formed as a republic and the Constitution was adopted, separation of church and state, separation of powers (executive, legislative and judicial) and federalism were incorporated as principles of the new nation, although none was identified by the above titles. Article VI, Section 3 provided for separation of church and state. It requires all “officers both of the United States and of the several states. . .to support this constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

This was followed by the First Amendment, which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.   

An “establishment of religion” had two meanings then, as it does now. An establishment is an institution. Establishment also meant a religious institution sponsored or supported by the government.

At the time the First Amendment was adopted, six states had multiple establishments of religion, or aid provided to all churches in each state on a non-preferential basis. It was this practice that the amendment for bade Congress to adopt. It did not refer to a single national church, as in England, where the Anglican church is the established church. Most people in the United States in 1791 had lived in America for generations under American-type establishment, or free churches outside government establishment.

Official separation of church and state has meant a secular Constitution which neither aids nor inhibits religion. The United States is the most religiously diverse nation in the world, with more than 1,500 religious bodies and sects, and more than 360,000 churches, mosques and synagogues.

According to recent surveys, more than 90 percent of Americans profess a belief in God, more than half say they pray at least once a day, and more than 40 percent say they have attended worship services during the previous week. The Census Bureau reports that 63 percent of the population claims church membership.

In other words, religion has flourished under separation of church and state; religious liberty has been maintained; and, except for an occasional demonstration of religious prejudice, there has been religious civility and harmony.



Christian Social Action, June 1996

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