On January 1, 1802 the newly elected president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson responded to a letter from representatives of the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut (1). This Christian coalition reached out to the new commander-in-chief with hopes of extending good will and prayers. They wrote also for the sake of religious liberty. As formerly under a monarchy the idea of civil freedoms was still a bit uncomfortable—like a new pair of shoes; shiny, beautiful, but unworn, rigid, and unfamiliar.
Within the family of this new republic was a humble diversity of faith. Various groups were scattered and yet segregated throughout the region. Puritans settled in New England, Anglicans were in the South, Quakers and Lutherans in Pennsylvania, Roman Catholics made Maryland home, Presbyterians spread out though the middle colonies, and Jews settled in five different cities (2).
With this plurality of spiritual expressions these baptist believers were concerned their initial experience of freedom to profess Christ was merely a sign of civility or as “favors granted, and not as inalienable rights”. What would happen when this innate kindness wore out? What would happen when the shoes lost their shine? They were looking for an assurance that religious liberty would not be just a passive courtesy but a foundational element of democracy.
We are many New Years beyond 1802. However we are not far-matured beyond the fragility of the relationship between government and faith. I have spent a large portion of my pastoral career viewing the so-called separation of church and state as a referendum on speaking from the pulpit on matters of government, politics, and wider society. To be sure much of my erroneous thinking was a result of my own failure to investigate and question pertinent legislation and (more severely) my lack of scriptural understanding about the impact of Jesus’ incarnation and gospel on contemporary governmental structures and political powers.
Recently I was reminded of this aspect of his lordship when preaching from Acts 12:1-19. Jesus came to earth, subverting political power and structures of government. And this was not a mere side hustle. Jesus' dismantling of earthly authority was a direct effect of his lordship. In Acts 12, Herod Agrippa I is the leading authority of Rome in Judea. Instead of simply harassing and trying Jesus followers in court—apostles who were planting churches—he executed them like military opponents. James, the brother of John was assassinated at the end of a sword. Herod knew Jesus was a threat to his power.
Jefferson—whose faith was not identical to his baptist constituents from Connecticut—responded to his well wishers with a commentary and quote from the First Amendment.
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ʺmake no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,ʺ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”
Jefferson assured his constituency that the liberties of their humanity and even the legislation of their country ensured them the expression of their faith in the public square and that no one faith will ever be espoused over another by the powers of government. It was the articulation and assurance of religious liberty for which they were hoping.
Ever since this note was penned on that New Years day we have summarily spoken about this aspect of the First Amendment as “the separation of Church and State”. However the way I (and perhaps others) have learned and even lived out this edict has been to refrain from political comments as a pastor—because I am supposed to keep the Church and State separate, I would think to myself. That is to say I have naively twisted a protection of faith as protection of country. Regretfully I have been more concerned with making sure the Church and God’s Word not cause discomfort to the politically minded rather than exercising the liberty of my faith to express the uncompromising authority of Jesus, even (if not especially) in matters of government.
In all honestly I’ve been scared. Fear has conditioned me not to speak about political systems nor speak back to governmental power on behalf of the marginalized because I know there are costs. The First Amendment has just been my scapegoat. I’m convinced if I speak in too conservative a fashion, progressives will leave my church. And I know when I speak progressively, conservatives will leave my church. In other words for fear of losing my people I avoid politics. The irony of course is that in keeping out of politics I have become quite the politician. I’m tempted every day to play to the gallery and be swayed by votes (of attendance and affection) rather than submit to the beauty and truth of Jesus.
And that’s the real issue isn’t it? I’m not concerned Jesus won’t be seen as Lord over American politics and government. I’m much more terrified about the implications of him being sovereign over my heart … my sermons … my legacy … my impact … my family … and my church. After all if Jesus is Lord, then he alone will set the limits of my influence for his kingdom’s sake, not for my favorability with the populace. That’s what makes him so lethal to the powers of this world, he subverts every heart, ideal, and legislation steadied in self.
Letters Between Thomas Jefferson and the Danbury Baptists, (Bill of Rights Institute), https://billofrightsinstitute.org/founding-documents/primary-source-documents/danburybaptists/
The Establishment Clause, (Constitution Center), https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/amendments/amendment-i/the-establishment-clause-hamilton-and-mcconnell/interp/31