Georgia’s recent election of a prominent pastor to serve in the U.S. Senate has prompted some reflection on our time-honored and carefully maintained principle of the “separation of church and state.”
The reported intention of Raphael Warnock to continue to serve as senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church while serving as a senator brings an interesting dynamic to the principle’s application.
On the surface, it might seem a violation of the principle for one person to occupy two roles so clearly identified respectively with church and state.
Jefferson’s “wall of separation” might seem to be taking on an easy passageway, rendering the wall ineffective in maintaining religious liberty on the one side and prohibiting “establishment” on the other.
Indeed, the principle has not always been adhered to.
Occasionally, civil action has encroached on religious persons and communities in the free exercise of their faith.
More often, appeals for civil support for particular religious communities and their beliefs have sought a bending of the First Amendment’s establishment clause for their particular benefit.
The competent care of BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty) has watched for and called out both the obvious and the subtle efforts to tilt the delicate balance of the principle in either direction. We are in their debt for decades of clear and judicious advocacy for its integrity.
So, how does a person so clearly identified as a representative and spokesperson for the “church” serve as a member of the highest legislative branch of the “state” without compromise of the integrity of one or the other?
I have always been helped by the reminder that a “separation of church and state” is not a divorce of the religious and political dimensions of life. In that reminder is a suggestion that religious faith and political responsibility live and work together in all of us, as individuals and as a society/nation.
That reminder also suggests to me that the concept of “incarnation” that is so central to Christian faith’s understanding of reality might also have application to an understanding of “separation” that can be more unifying than separatist.
On a personal level, the different dimensions of life – physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, social, economic, political – operate within our personal being, each with its own function and integrity that contribute to our overall well-being.
The unitive balance among these dimensions is what contributes to personal wholeness. If one dimension becomes so dominant that it diminishes the value of any other, then we are encouraged to restore the balance as much as possible.
In public life, we tend to institutionalize these dimensions, with specialized professions to manage them.
Medical personnel focus on the physical. Economists study and make decisions on the large scale regarding this dimension. We elect politicians and appoint other personnel to manage our political life. Communities of faith look to respective leaders for guidance in the spiritual realm.
There is separation, due to the unique integrity of each dimension, and yet there is cooperation and a kind of unifying purpose among them that brings together the specific contribution of each to the common good of wholesome living, personally and collectively.
This leads me to wonder if a “separation of church and state” can be personified within any of us as an embrace of the respective character and integrity of each without diminishing the character and integrity of either. It seems that it can.
It leads me further to wonder if a highly visible public figure like Pastor/Senator Warnock might serve as a model of an “incarnational” separation of church and state that reflects the kind of partnership of different dimensions of life that our personal experience with those dimensions affirms.
I believe I understand correctly that the substance of the “religion clauses” of the First Amendment and the concept of the “wall of separation” were intended not to restrict cooperation but to prohibit the ever-present tendency of domination that would empower one at the expense of the other.
Theologically, incarnation is an affirmation and a disclosure of the partnership and community of all reality, as seen in the one life of the one whom Christians embrace as that disclosure.
Seen through this incarnational lens, participants in partnerships remain “separate” in their identity and integrity but committed to bringing their distinctive contributions to the service of community that transcends them both.
Incarnational thinking about the religious and political dimensions of our public life seems worth a try, given the obvious consequences of a season of “dominational” thinking.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).