In Franklin County, Idaho, the Mormon population is 91.5 percent. In Utah County, Utah, it is 88.1 percent. If your job transferred you to one of these counties and you sent your child to a public school, would you object if the teacher began class by reading from the Book of Mormon each day? Well, obviously not if you are Mormon. If you are of any other religion or none at all, chances are good you would object.
The separation of church and state becomes clearer when we look at scenarios in which we are in the minority. As a Baptist, I’m aware that my denomination began as a minority faith. Baptists fought for freedom to practice religion apart from the state. Oppressed in England, many Christians came to America only to discover they had left one form of religious oppression for another. These people had not spent weeks on the open sea, risking all they were and had, to come to America only to bow to demands of another official church.
Leading the way was Roger Williams. Credited with founding the Baptist tradition in America, he helped secure the Rhode Island Charter of 1663, which allowed settlers of any religious persuasion, or none at all, to live without any fear of intrusion from authorities.
Williams, influenced by his study of history, asserted that while Christianity had survived under the bloody rule of Nero, the reputation of Christians was far better than under Constantine’s rule. Constantine not only made it safe for Christians to practice their faith; he made Christianity the official religion of the land. Yet Christians quickly moved from being persecuted for their beliefs to forcing their faith on the masses. Under this system, the reputation of Christians suffered greatly, and religion was maintained by the sword.
Williams believed that Christianity, in the hands of the state, was a dangerous thing, because the state is a corrupted institution. Thus, he called for a “hedge or wall of separation between the Garden of the church” that would protect it from “the wilderness of the world.”
When Christianity is forced on citizens by the state, faith becomes detached from the heart, and the gospel is prostituted. Another problem created by not separating church and state is that Christianity may be used for the political and personal agendas of those who espouse it. Because of such dangers, Williams rightly contended that the mixing of the two is bad for both.
Because of people like Williams, Baptists became known as champions for religious freedom. They demanded, often to their own peril, the right to practice religion without interference from the state. Baptists also stood with other faiths and even with those who professed no faith, for the right to the same principle.
As they did, the numbers of Baptists grew, partly because people admired Baptists for practicing the Golden Rule and partly because Baptists maintained their responsibility to share the gospel. The credibility Baptists built up enhanced their efforts of evangelism.
In the past 25 years, Baptists have lost credibility in the public arena. At the same time, support among many Baptist leaders for the wall of separation between church and state has steadily eroded. The sentiment of these leaders has been more like the Christians during the days of Constantine: “We have the power, we have the wealth, and what’s more, we are now the majority; let’s impose our faith on the masses. We know it’s good for them. Furthermore, it’s our Christian duty.”
Interestingly, Baptist numbers are in decline as are the numbers of other denominations. This decline has likely been a great fear of those who have been crying that the separation of church and state is evil. They have been afraid of losing the majority role in a nation of increasing plurality. They cannot seem to see that in lording their faith over the masses and forcing their religion upon those whose hearts are neither touched nor convicted by their in-your-face efforts, they are losing the reputation that Baptists championed–the reputation that Baptists care about the rights of all people, not just their own.
Separation of church and state, in part, is about making sure that the majority does not use the state to force its religious views on the minority. Baptists embraced this concept during their days as a minority, and today, we as Baptists and other Christians ought not to forget this concept now that we have numbers and money in our corner. The surest way to lose disciples is to try to force Christianity on the masses. That has been tried. It does not work. Let’s get back to living by the Golden Rule and applying it to church and state issues.
Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga.
Michael Helms is pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson, Georgia.