"They were human, they suffered, wore long black coat and gold watch chain.
They stare from daguerreotype with severe reprehension,
Or from genuine oil, and you'd never guess any pain
In those merciless eyes that now remark our own time's sad declension."
--Robert Penn Warren, "Founding Fathers, Nineteenth-Century Style, Southeast U.S.A."
Recently a woman asked a man, “Are you a Christian?” He said, “Yes, I am an American.” A couple of years ago a student at the University of California raised her hand in the middle of a seminar the Professor was teaching on the first century of Rome and the dawn of the Christian era. She seemed genuinely disturbed. “I know you’re all going to think this is crazy, but I always thought Jesus was an American.” There seems to be a misunderstanding in many quarters of our country about the difference between faith and country.
You can be an American and be a Christian. You can be a Christian and be an American. But I am not at all sure that you can fuse the two categories. There is a line drawn between church and state.
Ever wonder why American and Christian are not synonymous? This national holiday weekend gives us a good opportunity to ask this question: What’s wrong with blending church and state? Jesus once said that we were to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. We have obligations to Caesar and God but they are not the same loyalties.
Dissenters in England were forced to draw a hard line between Caesar and Christ. These dissenters were born at a time of great adversity. James I was the King of England. At that time England was fragmented into many religious factions. He solved the problem by forcing uniformity in all things religious. If they wanted to pray they were to use the prescribed prayer book. If they wanted to worship there was a set order to be followed. If they wanted to be a loyal member of the state then they would attend the Church of England. James I was followed by Charles I, who believed in the divine right of kings and bishops. In fact the words kings and bishops could be used interchangeably.
Many of those little groups who had grown accustomed to their own worship ways refused to conform to the edicts of the king. They were called: non-conformists. And they suffered such persecution that some of them moved to Holland. There John Smyth, one of their leaders would boldly write: “the magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience, to force or compel men to this or that form of religion, or doctrine; but to leave Christian religion free, to every man’s conscience…for Christ only is the king, and lawgiver of the church and conscience.” Leonard Blusher wrote: “As kings and bishops cannot command the wind; so they cannot command faith.”
Needless to say this did not set well with the King or his religious minions. Many were driven out of town, some lost their lives, and others lost their income. So a group of them in search of religious freedom found their way to the new land called America. But already the Church of England in certain quarters of the new colonies already had a stronghold on religion in the new land. Dissenters were dragged into court, their homes and belongings were searched. Many were thrown into prison. In those early days in Massachusetts and Virginia and other colonies our history record oppression and persecution simply because people wanted to worship as they saw fit. And so slowly but firmly this phrase separation of church and state found its way into the Constitution of the new land. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...”Interestingly enough, many of those early dissenters championed freedom not only for themselves but they granted religious freedom to all persons.
What would those early champions of religious liberty say about judges, presidential candidates and other elected officials having to subscribe to some religious litmus test of someone else’s choosing? What would our forebears say to those who would propose the legislature in any state writing prayers to be used in public school classrooms? This is not the business of the state.
God never has been a taboo subject in this country. No group, including the Supreme Court can hound God out of any classroom. Someone asked President Harry Truman once about his faith. He barked back, “I am not a religious man. Mrs. Truman takes care of that.” But Mr. Truman was a person of faith. He grew up going to Sunday school, was grounded in Biblical knowledge and did some public praying while he was in office without fanfare. But he despised the idea that religion could be used for political purposes.
On this weekend when we think of our beginnings as a country—let us remember Jesus’ words to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars but not the things that are God’s. The State can ask too much and that is why our forebears hammered out a new way that no other country had seen: to be an American does not necessarily mean to be a Christian. And to be a Christian you certainly do not have to be an American.
(This article appeared in The Greenville News (SC) Op Ed section, Sunday June 30, 2013)