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The separation of church and state, or the "wall of separation" talked about by Colonial Baptist Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson and the U.S. Supreme Court, is simply a shorthand metaphor for expressing a deeper truth that religious liberty is best protected when church and state are institutionally separated and neither tries to perform or interfere with the essential mission and work of the other.

While the phrase "separation of church and state" technically is not in the First Amendment, and although there is no evidence that either Thomas Jefferson or James Madison used the word "separation" until the 19th century, the principles those words represent are there. Who would deny that federalism, the separation of powers and the right to a fair trial are constitutional principles? But those phrases do not appear in the Constitution either. And how could anyone read Jefferson's "Bill Establishing Religious Freedom" in Virginia and Madison's "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments" without concluding that they unequivocally supported the concept?

Baptists often hold up Roger Williams' "hedge or wall of separation" and point to Jefferson's 1802 Letter to the Danbury Connecticut Baptist Association where he talked about his "sovereign reverence" for the wall of separation. But we often forget about the writings of the father of our Constitution, Madison, who, in a letter to Robert Walsh in 1819, observed that "the number, the industry and the morality of the priesthood and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of church and state."

For some, religious liberty is bound up in the notion of "soul freedom" that all receive as a gift of God; for others, it is intimately tied to freedom of conscience. Church-state separation is only the political/constitutional means of protecting the end of religious liberty.

Moreover, the separation of church and state serves both religion clauses in the First Amendment. It operates not only to insist upon non-establishment, but also to ensure the free exercise of religion. In fact, the Supreme Court's first use of the words "separation of church and state" came in a free exercise case in 1879. Properly understood, separation calls for "neutrality" - even, to use Chief Justice Warren Burger's words, "benevolent neutrality" - toward religion, not in any sense hostility.

Indeed, the separation of church and state does not require a "segregation" of religion from public life. In fact, even John Leland and Isaac Backus, for all of their insistence upon the principle of separation, were thoroughly involved in public policy debates and attempts to influence legislation in their day. See the section on Political Discourse.

Separation has been good for both church and state. For each to do its work, there must always be a decent distance, between the two - some "swingin' room," to use Gardner Taylor's phrase. The institutional and functional separation of church and state has resulted in a vibrant religion, a plush pluralism and a vital democracy. History teaches and contemporary geo-politics reveals that nations that abjure a healthy separation of church and state wind up with tepid, attenuated, majoritarian religion, at best, or a theocracy, at worst.

Baptists became champions of religious liberty and church-state separation in large measure because we are a people of the Book. For many Baptists, religious liberty is well grounded in Scripture. Its taproot runs deep into the creation accounts in Genesis.  The creation of human beings in God's own image necessarily implies a freedom on our part to choose for or against a relationship with God, voluntarily and without coercion.  

The Bible does not articulate a full-blown doctrine of the separation of church and state.  Yet, its seeds are clearly present.  Jesus at least foreshadowed the concept when he said "[g]ive therefore to the emperor things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." (Matthew 22:21)  Jesus' behavior was consistent with his words.  He never took a coin from Caesar or sought the help of Herod in his ministry and mission.  And in many places, the New Testament outlines the contours of the separate realms of the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar.  The church is given the tasks of spreading the gospel (Acts 1:8), teaching doctrine (Matthew 28:20), and discipling believers (Ephesians 4:11-13).  The state is divinely ordained to resist evil (Romans 13:3) and keep order (I Peter 2:13-15).  Although these realms sometimes overlap and do not necessarily clash, the New Testament bears witness to a two-kingdom world - each with separate duties and each engendering different loyalties. 

 
 
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