The so-called "separation of church and state" occupies one of the most controversial spots in both religious and political conversations. Political conservatives often disdain it, while liberals strive to expand the principle to new frontiers. But as you'll discover today, this very historic and very good American legal tradition is surrounded by some damaging myths and misinterpretations.
In 2012, we cringe at the thought of pastors endorsing candidates in front of congregations, or even speaking on moral issues within the purview of government. But this hasn't always been the case. And an exploration of American history will reveal a fundamentally different landscape in regards to the freedom of religious clergy and institutions to speak up, even on hotly-debated public issues. Though modern American Christians may feel reluctant or even intimidated at the thought of engaging in political discussion within the church, our forebears had no qualms about mixing the two. In fact, as our guests on this week's broadcast explain, this country boasts a long and storied tradition of politics in the pulpit. From the American Revolution, to the Great Awakenings, to abolitionism during the Civil War, American clergy have long felt comfortable with bringing the Truth of God's Word to bear in all areas of life—including this one.
Dr. Glenn Sunshine Teaching a class of Centurions students
But as Dr. Glenn Sunshine, professor of history at Central Connecticut State University, and faculty member for the Colson Center's Centurions program points out, something has changed drastically. The trouble, he says, started when the original understanding of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution—which merely forbade the establishment of a state church or doctrine—was forsaken in favor of a more flexible, evolving interpretation. Thus freedom of religion became freedom from religion, and a country whose founders saw the public expression of religion and religious principles as good and necessary came to regard this as inappropriate and intolerant.
But as Dr. Sunshine contends, the founders' understanding of the American republic required that religion and morality take center stage in public discourse. Without these foundations, they insisted, our laws and the liberties they were designed to protect would ultimately crumble.
According to Glenn, the modern myth of "separation of church and sate" taken to mean separation of religion from politics was commenced when Lyndon B. Johnson, then a Senator, introduced a tax code amendment which made the longstanding tax-exempt status of American churches conditional on their political neutrality.
Dr. Jim Garlow, Pastor of Skyline Wesleyan Church
But as our second guest, Dr. Jim Garlow, points out, the specter of state retribution against churches who break this rule has never materialized.
Garlow, who is a popular radio host and pastor of Skyline Wesleyan Church, as well as the chairman of Renwewing American Leadership, is currently participating in a movement designed specifically to challenge these kinds of state restrictions on the free speech and religious liberty of churches. It's called "Speak Up," and the next event is scheduled for Sunday, October 7th. Led by The Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly The Alliance Defense Fund,) "Speak Up Sunday" will see thousands of pastors in churches across the nation intentionally defy the Johnson Amendment in order to test the willingness of the federal government to enforce its tax restriction.
The hope, says Garlow, is that the movement will become large enough to warrant a court challenge, at which point he believes the policy which has kept American churches silent for decades will fail to meet constitutional muster.
But like all efforts, this one requires grassroots support. For more information and details about how you and your church can join, check out the Speak Up website. Voices are required, and with an accelerating growth each year, Garlow has great hopes that the Pulpit Freedom Initiative will provide the Church in America a chance to debunk the "separation" myth and once again make its voice heard in one of the most important areas of national life.
For more on the relationship of Christianity and politics, watch John Stonestreet's latest "Two-Minute Warning" video commentary, in which he explains why Christians have a duty to participate this November. Then check out our newest "Theme of the Week," where you will learn how Christians can get the complex subject of politics right.