As the presidential race prepares to jump into high gear, and as influential segments of American Christianity seek to ingratiate themselves with and guide — you could say manipulate — our civil government, it is worth pausing to consider the history of intermingling politics and religion.
Since Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion of Rome in the fourth century, we have witnessed the corrupting influence of politics on Christian faith, and the oppression that occurs when the church is given full reign over matters of state. And it has been no different in America.
The earliest history of Christianity in the colonies is one of religious oppression, brought on and enforced by state-sanctioned religion. And many of those who most fervently seek a church-guided government today can trace their roots to the Baptists who suffered under this oppression in the colonies.
When the London Company drafted the 1606 “Articles, Instructions and Orders” for Jamestown, the charter required colonists to “provide that the true word, and service of God and Christian faith be preached.” This obviously ruled out any other faith among the colonists, but it didn’t stop at merely specifying Christianity. The charter added a requirement that the “true word” be “according to the doctrine, rights, and religion now professed and established within our realm of England.”
That meant every aspect of faith in the colony would be dictated by the Church of England. No others need apply. Any detractors could be jailed, beaten, have their property seized or worse.
In 1612, Deputy Gov. Thomas Dale set forth “Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall” that prescribed the death penalty for any who might “speak impiously of the Trinity … or against the known articles of the Christian faith.” New immigrants to the colony were required to report to the Anglican minister for “examination in the faith.” Those who refused faced a daily whipping “until he makes acknowledgment.”
I am a devoted Episcopalian — an unwanted child of the Church of England. As such, it is important for me to remember my church — along with many others — once was used as a weapon of intolerance, precisely because the government and church were intertwined — in much the way many American Christians want to see again.
That fact was not lost on James Madison in 1773, when he discovered a group of Baptists had been jailed near his home for their faith. He described the punishment as a “diabolical, hell-conceived principle of persecution.” It was a memory that would drive him to include separation of church and state in the Virginia Constitution, and again at the First Constitutional Convention in 1787.
Madison’s personal encounter was one of many such grievous acts of oppression that led Baptists to be among the most ardent advocates of separating church and state, in the state constitutions and eventually the U.S. Constitution.
Madison outlined the risks of intertwining church and state in his 1785 “A Memorial and Remonstrance.”
“Who does not see that the same authority, which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions,” Madison wrote, “may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?”
Thomas Jefferson echoed that sentiment in his 1785 “Notes on the State of Virginia.”
“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others,” Jefferson wrote. “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are 20 gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
Jefferson, writing 236 years ago, predicted our political climate and its inevitable cry of a secular war on Christianity. To arguments of culture war and the need for the government to protect faith, Jefferson tells us individual religious practice is the concern of the individual and her or his church. The state has no concern in the matter, and none of us are harmed by the choices of others.
George Washington was called on to address the same question in 1789, when a group of Presbyterian elders complained to him the Constitution did not acknowledge “the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom he hath sent.”
In his response on Nov. 2, 1789, Washington replied flatly that “the path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction.”
Piety, Washington tells us, is a matter that does not need the government to select, protect and advance one form over another. Piety exists between the people, their chosen clergy and God.
In response to calls for government to protect the faithful, Washington was as blunt as Jefferson. The task of uplifting people in the faith, and protecting the teachings of the Church within the broader realm of secular society, is a task solely for the church and its ministers, Washington insisted.
“To the guidance of the ministers of the gospel this important object is, perhaps, more properly committed,” Washington told the concerned Presbyterians. “It will be your care to instruct the ignorant, and to reclaim the devious ...”
The Framers were not ignorant of secularism, or of other faiths. And, they were men of faith. But, they left provisions of faith — and government mechanisms to protect and advance faith — out of our Constitution, and expressly forbade the same. They did so not because they wanted faith to flounder in our republic. They did so because they knew the only way to ensure religious liberty was to keep government out of the matter entirely.
That is a lesson hard-won by the Framers, and generations of faithful Christians who suffered persecution at the hands of state-sanctioned religion before them. It is a lesson we would be foolhardy to ignore today.