On Monday we celebrate the 235th anniversary of our country’s birth. We have had some ups and downs through the years, and we are by no means perfect, but by and large this is a great place to live.
I can’t help but to appreciate the words of theologian Reinhold Niehbur who said, “American democracy is the worst form of government that has ever been invented – except for all the others that have been tried!”
One feature of our common life that has also turned out pretty well is what is commonly known as the separation of church and state.
Now, I know all the worn-out arguments against the notion of separation. And yes, I know that those words are not in the Constitution. But the principle is there.
There were plenty of founders who were involved with the Constitutional Convention who would have been delighted to establish their particular denominations as the official religion of America.
But at the end of the process, sounder minds prevailed. It became obvious, no matter how ironic it may seem, that a nation cannot experience unity with religion as the central feature.
The genius of the founders is that they knew that religion, however positive and wholesome it can be, also serves as a divisive force for those who disagree with particular tenets of faith.
Drive through your community and note how many different versions of the Christian faith are represented on nearly every corner.
And diversity is not bad a thing. While it was certainly not the intention of the founders to create a climate for faith to thrive, that it is exactly what religious freedom has accomplished.
While refusing to promote a single faith as the official faith of American life, while at the same time protecting religious freedom for all faiths, our country has created the most fertile ground for spiritual pursuits of any country in the world.
Take a tour of Europe sometime with its great state-supported cathedrals that now stand mostly empty on Sunday.
With all that said, I find myself wanting to change the way we talk about faith in the American experience. The expression “separation of church and state” has become something of a lightning rod attracting unnecessary debate about an essential constitutional principle.
Far more helpful, I believe, is the language used by Welton Gaddy. Gaddy is the president of the Interfaith Alliance – a group that encompasses just about every faith group in America.
Gaddy does not use the language of “separation of church and state.” Instead he talks about the separation of “religion and government.”
Gaddy makes a passionate case that faith needs to be a part of our common life. Politicians, and all community leaders, need to be people of principle and ethical integrity.
Whatever faith tradition helps them accomplish that, it is good for America when they do.
What we don’t need is for the government to adopt one faith over others as the official faith of America. That is the sort thing that starts religious wars and divides people against each other.
History has given us too many examples, both from the far past and from recent events, to know how devastating that kind of conflict can be.
We can be Americans and pray in all sorts of diverse ways.
We can even be Americans and not pray at all.
That’s the genius of our system.
Happy Birthday, America.
James L. Evans is a retired Baptist preacher living in Alabama. Over 35 years, he served churches in Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia. In support of his pastoral work, Evans published 5 books including “First and Second Corinthians: Immersion Bible Studies” (Abingdon Press (2011).