Separation of church and state is the principle that civil government and the church operate in different spheres and that the government must maintain an attitude of neutrality toward religion. When church and state are not separate, there is an established church — a church supported by the state. In such cases, taxes are used to support the church, including paying ministers and providing funds for the church to carry out its ministry. Also, the state is utilized to enforce church regulations, such as tithing. Often the result has been severe persecution for those having faith and practices other than that of the established church. Baptists are among those who often have been the victims of such persecution, providing additional motivation for their advocating church-state separation.
In England, in 1612, persecution motivated Baptist Thomas Helwys to write “A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity,” in which he argued that “mens religion … is betwixt God and themselves. … Let them be heretikes, Turcks, Jewes, or whatever, it appertaynes not to the earthly powers to punish them.” King James I “rewarded” Helwys with imprisonment, where he died shortly thereafter.
Between 1661 and 1665, British Parliament passed a series of laws known as the “Clarendon Code.” The Corporation Act (1661) stated that no one could serve in public office without conforming to the state church. The Act of Uniformity (1662) required all ministers in England to conduct worship by the standards of the Church of England. Those who refused were removed from their pulpits. About 20 percent of the ministers in England were deposed. John Bunyan, author of “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” was one of the Baptist leaders who was imprisoned during this time.
Matters were no better in the English colonies. John Clarke published “Ill Newes from New England” in 1652. This book relates the harsh persecution experienced during a visit Clarke and two others made to Lynn, Mass. They preached to a few people who visited the home and were arrested, taken to Boston, and sentenced to be fined or publicly whipped. One of Newton’s friends was struck 30 times with a three-corded whip. He was injured so badly that he was unable to leave Boston for several weeks.
In 1635, Roger Williams, who established the first Baptist church in the colonies, was sentenced to banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for his religious views. In 1664, he published “The Bloudy Tenet of Persecution,” in which he wrote, “All Civil States with their officers of justice in their respective constitution and administrations are proved essentially Civil, and therefore not Judges, Governors, or Defenders of the Spiritual or Christian State and Worship.”
Understandably, defending the separation of church and state is in the DNA of Baptists. This principle is stated clearly and concisely in all three editions of the Baptist Faith and Message (1925, 1963, 2000): “Church and state should be separate.” That document provides the rationale for such separation: “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” As a result, “no ecclesiastical group or denomination should be favored by the state more than others.”
Severe persecution, along with this belief that “God alone is Lord of the conscience,” inspired Baptists to work diligently for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that called for religious liberty and a separation of church and state. The First Amendment reads, in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This “establishment clause” and “free exercise clause” are intended to ensure a separation of church and state.
Unfortunately, Baptists have not been in agreement concerning the precise application of this principle. “Separation of church and state” has many shades of meaning. Charles H. Esbeck, professor of law at the University of Missouri Columbia, has identified six degrees of church-state separation. Most Southern Baptists today tend to follow one of two positions.
Strict separationists are fond of quoting Thomas Jefferson regarding “building a wall of separation between church and state.” Of course, following this absolutely would forbid tax-supported firefighters from extinguishing a fire at a church building. Accommodationists argue that government should not merely tolerate religious liberty, but aid citizens in the free exercise of religion without favoring one religious group over another.
These competing interpretations of church-state separation have led to differing applications of the principle — such as whether school vouchers violate church-state separation. Strict separationists tend to oppose vouchers, since it involves tax money supporting a religious institution. Accommodationists tend to support the use of vouchers. Their argument is that when the government restricts the liberty of its citizens through compulsory education laws, the government should provide for its citizens to fulfill this requirement in keeping with their religious convictions — that is, so long as no denomination is provided vouchers while another is denied.
In his commentary on The Baptist Faith and Message, Herschel Hobbs wrote, “Quite obviously, there are gray areas in the relationship between church and state. These are subject to interpretation. But one thing is clear. Neither church nor state should exercise authority over the other. History records that a free church in a free state proves a blessing to both.”
— Walter E. Johnson is dean of the College of Christian Studies at North Greenville University.