The Founding Fathers who created the American system of government understood well the lessons of history, from the early days of the Crusades through the Inquisition, the Reformation, and into 16 th and 17 th century England. This bred in them a deep mistrust of religion — any religion — if it were combined with the power of the state. It was little different in the New World. In almost every colony, one religious persuasion would gain the reins of civil government to persecute those of any other persuasion.
The Declaration of Independence established “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” as the standard by which civil government should function. Natural law is instinctive in every man’s conscience regardless of his religious beliefs. It is from natural law that the Founding Fathers agreed upon the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The language of the First Amendment is clearly written from the perspective of natural law and not from any particular religious belief. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were worlds apart in their religious beliefs, but in regard to the principles of American government, they were of the same general mind because they both recognized and respected the difference between religious belief and natural law.
Civil government must function from natural law, the law of conscience. The Christian church functions from religious principles. Trouble stems from the tendency of both religious and governmental leaders to overstep their bounds and meddle in each other’s affairs, as John Locke observed:
I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion, and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other.1
The Founding Fathers of America included deists like Thomas Jefferson, devout Christians like James Madison, and Freemasons like George Washington. This was perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the American Revolution. Never before had men of such different beliefs joined together in a civil government to preserve not only their own rights and freedom, but the rights and freedom of all.
Thomas Jefferson gleaned from the writings of Roger Williams the term “wall of separation,”2 which he used to make his very famous declaration in 1802, acknowledging that through the First Amendment,
...I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.3
All of the colonies except Rhode Island, where Roger Williams had established in its charter a clear separation of church and state, were afflicted with conflicts between those two spheres of authority. It was to just such a conflict that James Madison returned after graduation from college, which he described in a letter to his college friend, Bradford, in January of 1774:
...There are at this time in the adjacent country not less than five or six well-meaning men in close jail for publishing their religious sentiments, which, in the main, are very orthodox. I have neither patience to hear, talk or think of anything relative to this matter, for I have squabbled and scolded, abused and ridiculed, so long about it, to little purpose, that I am without common patience. So I must beg you to pity me, and pray for liberty of conscience to all.4
Madison came to understand that the real issue was greater than mere “toleration of religion” as espoused by John Locke. He saw the issue as “free exercise” of religion, or “full and equal rights of conscience” for the individual.5 He understood that government should protect every man’s freedom of conscience, and that this was the limit of the government’s role in religious matters. What James Madison, one of the principal authors of the Constitution, saw from the perspective of civil government, Roger Williams had understood spiritually 100 years before him.6
The importance of the freedom to follow the dictates of one’s conscience is clearly evident in the way the First Amendment of the Constitution, which guards this liberty, came to be written. The writing of the Constitution took place in the midst of great struggle and turmoil. Some colonies wanted a state religion; others wanted no part of any state-controlled religion. So at the Second Continental Congress, one of the main issues was the degree of control the state should exercise over the practice of religion, and the degree to which any particular denomination could be established as a state religion. These conflicts were fierce and the issues were thoroughly debated among the delegates present. Ultimately a majority emerged who favored the spirit of religious liberty established in Rhode Island’s charter, thus it was incorporated into the Declaration of Independence and the Federal Constitution.7
The fact of this decision raises a troubling question: What is it about the nature and history of Christianity that caused these great statesmen to fear its grip on the reins of power? Their decisions expressed in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights sent a prophetic message to the whole world, calling for an end to the tyranny of the church-state liaison.
Yet today there are Christians in America who claim it is a myth8 that the framers of the Constitution wanted a complete separation of church and state. They seek to tear down the wall of separation in order to bring the moral principles of Christianity to bear on the decisions of civil government. The spokesmen of this movement claim that America was established as a Christian nation and therefore the “separation of church and state” is a myth. They intend to make America into the theocracy9 which, they claim, the early colonists were seeking. They argue that the “ wall was originally introduced [by Jefferson] as, and understood to be, a one-directional wall protecting the church from the government.”10 Roger Williams, however, made it clear that the wall of separation must go both ways:
On the other side, the Churches as Churches, have no power ... of erecting or altering formes of Civil Government, electing of Civill officers, inflicting Civill punishments ... as by deposing Magistrates from their Civill Authoritie...11
By calling for the abolishment of separation, these Christian activists cite numerous examples of leaders in the colonial era “never separating the struggle for freedom from Biblical principles ... For Samuel Adams there was no separation between political service and spiritual activities.”12 But the proper context for public service being guided by right moral principles is the “dictates of [each individual’s] conscience” and not as legislated dictum that forces the beliefs and practices of a particular religion upon all citizens.
The last 200 years of American history illustrate this tension in the grappling of those on both sides of the wall as to where to draw the line between the legitimate spheres of authority of the state and the church. Where would we be as a nation without the foundation of the First Amendment that gives civil government the freedom to rule according to conscience for the good of all its citizens and gives individuals the freedom to believe and practice whatever their conscience dictates to them?
Since the days of Constantine, the state and the Christian religion have been continually jockeying for position to use one another for their own ends. It is no different today with movements like “Reclaiming America for Christ.” Christians are involved at every level of American government in the guise of seeking moral reforms. But in doing so, they are seeking not merely to bring this country’s rulers back to a standard of conscience, but to establish a broad-based and intimate merger of the interests of the state with the doctrines and political agendas of Christianity.
The stage is now set for the final drama of human history. As the world plummets into moral chaos and unpredictable outbreaks of terrorism, people are sacrificing their personal freedoms for the apparent security of increased governmental control over every facet of life. It will take a world government to restrain the global forces that threaten global destruction.
At the same time, the divided camps of Christianity are drawing together in a superficial unity that will culminate in a world religion bent on shaping the policy of the emerging world order. The wayward daughters will come diplomatically back under the wing of their mother, the Roman Catholic Church, and together they will mount the state once more and ride into temporal power.13 True to her nature, she will once again seek to silence every dissenting voice.
But in these last days the age-old story of religious oppression will have a new twist. For in the ranks of the ostracized and persecuted will be a people, a kingdom which the God of heaven will set up. Despite all opposition, their emerging culture based on self-sacrificing love will prove indestructible. Their life will be a demonstration of the righteous standard of God, by which He will judge the nations of the earth, bringing an end to both the political and ecclesiastical powers of wickedness, and ushering in a new age of peace.