The stirring words of this hymn have brought many of us to tears, as we considered how much we have to give thanks for as Americans. Yet, the glory of America seems very tarnished in the midst of the profound moral corruption overtaking this society. The faith with which we once sang, "America, America, God shed His grace on thee ... and crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea..." seems more of a hope now, if not just a memory.
Could things possibly get any worse? Billy Graham has even said that if God doesn't judge America for her sins then He owes an apology to Sodom and Gomorrah. In the face of this decline of the traditional values which have made America great, men like Dr. James Dobson, Dr. Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, and Bill McCartney of Promise Keepers are leading a public fight to preserve what is good about America. They want to do more than stop the decay -- they want to take our society in the opposite direction, to regain the righteousness she once had. Their stated goal is to bring America back to her Christian foundation, to her intended status as a Christian nation.
Yet, this raises questions in many sincere people, both Christians and non-Christians. For what, after all, is the most precious thing we possess as Americans? What one thing above all else makes us the envy of the rest of the world? To anyone who appreciates the sacrifices that have made America what it is today, the answer is not natural beauty, abundant wealth, or military power. It is something much deeper, something that makes everything else worth having -- freedom. The freedom to speak what we think, to live and to work where we will, to associate with whomever we want, and above all else, to worship God as we see fit. This is the crowning glory of the free nation of America -- our greatest treasure.
So the question for many is, can this freedom exist within a Christian nation? Or will it be curtailed and limited to those who conform to the religious beliefs of the majority? These are questions that have been asked many times down through history. The founding fathers left their answer in their greatest achievement -- the United States Constitution. It remains one of the most sublime and perfect documents ever to come from the hands of men. The First Amendment to it says:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
These words prohibit the government from meddling in the minds and the hearts of the American people. They preserve every man's liberty of conscience. They form a wall around the God-given rights of the American people. Behind that wall men of every faith, and men of no faith at all, have found freedom and safety from others telling them how to believe. This wall has stood the test of time and become a beacon of liberty to many other nations since then. Truly the grace of God was upon the people who wrote these words.
Today that freedom has been abused, taken to its limits and beyond. The founding fathers believed the Constitution could only protect the freedoms of a God-fearing people. They understood the difference between freedom of expression and pornography, education and propaganda, government and tyranny. Americans once lived with the keen awareness that this life wasn't all that mattered. They didn't live for the moment because they knew that one day they would have to give an account for their deeds to their Maker. But today American schools and government, let alone Hollywood, almost seem dedicated to destroying this essential knowledge among this nation's youth.
Long ago, when the beacon of American liberty had only been burning for a short time, President Thomas Jefferson wrote these words about the First Amendment:
The whole American people ... declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free excercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.1
The founding fathers of America were Deists like Thomas Jefferson, devout Christians like James Madison, and Freemasons like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.2 This was perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the Revolution. Never before had men of such different beliefs joined together in a civil government to preserve not only their own rights and freedoms, but the rights and freedoms of all.
They had lived through times when men of one Christian denomination were imprisoning other Christians for what they believed. They understood from both history and personal experience that church and state had to be kept separate. In fact, in 1774, just one year before the battles of Lexington and Concord, James Madison wrote to a friend about the sorry state of affairs in his native Virginia:
There are at this time in the adjacent county not less than five or six well-meaning men in close jail for publishing their religious sentiments, which, in the main, are very orthodox. I have neither patience to hear, talk, or think of anything relative to this matter, for I have squabbled and scolded, abused and ridiculed, so long about it, to little purpose, that I am without common patience. So I must beg you to pity me, and pray for liberty of conscience for all.3
How thankful we can be that the prayers of such righteous men were heard!
Now we find ourselves in a time when men like Dr. Dobson, Dr. D. James Kennedy, and many others, are saying that President Jefferson meant that the wall of separation existed solely to protect the church from the state. They believe it is a one-way wall, allowing the church, as the church, full freedom to be involved with the detailed running of the government. They believe the rule of the redeemed is the only hope for a moral society and moral laws. In this, they stand with famous Reformers like Calvin and Luther, and the last and most influential of the church fathers, Augustine. For most of her long history, the Roman Catholic Church has embraced Augustine's vision of the total Christian society. In it, every aspect of society was subject to the church-- education, the media, the government, and the courts of justice -- everything. They believe such a society is where God's grace can again be shed upon America.
Yet, outside of these powerful traditions (which admittedly have prevailed everywhere but America for much of the last 16 centuries), there have been passionate voices of dissent. The first man who defied the merger of church and state, and lived to see his vision of a free society become reality, was Roger Williams. He was the founder of Rhode Island, the first state in the Western world to have complete religious freedom since the beginning of the Constantinian era in 312 AD. He saw the issue in a light that all who desire America to be a Christian nation would do well to consider.
Based on purely practical considerations, most people fear for their freedom should church and state mingle. Each generation of Christians who have taken the reins of earthly power did not believe they would do any righteous person harm. Yet, the prospect still raises sincere alarm in many people because, ultimately, the only righteous people to such Christians have been other Christians who agree with them. This is an historical fact, rooted solidly in fundamental Christian doctrines. To such people, all those outside their "mainstream" were unregenerate, lost, and living in a sin-blinded state.
Roger Williams, however, viewed the proper limits of both church and state from a biblical rather than a practical standpoint. The state had no right to set up the form, choose the ministers, or punish offenders against church teachings. These were all in the proper realm of the church. At the same time, the church was to have no earthly power to enforce her teachings.
It is good to remember that no state has ever given any church, no matter how powerful or numerous her members, access to the machinery of power without demanding and receiving this authority over the church in return. The mixing of church and state is never a one-way street. Indeed, the church has always then become the defender of whatever policies her protectors in the government have chosen, up to and including the Nazi Holocaust.
Roger Williams saw from the Scriptures and the history of Christendom the dreadful spiritual consequences when the church transgresses the bounds and purposes set for it by God in His word. As a believer in the authority of the Scriptures, he understood that the wall had to be two-way, not one-way. It existed to keep both the church and the state in their proper realms. More than that, he saw the wall not as the creation of men, to limit or restrict the church, but the work of God to protect His people. It was the shelter behind which the church had to willingly stay in order to be protected from the defilement of the world. Should the church so defile herself, it would be God Himself that would hand her over to the world (as indeed He already had).
When they (the church) have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the Candlestick, etc., and made His Garden a wilderness as it is this day. And that therefore if He will ever please to restore His garden and Paradise again, it must of necessity be walled in peculiarly unto Himself from the world, and all that be saved out of the world are to be transplanted out of the wilderness of the World.4
His words were written in a time when men were being tortured and executed for having religious beliefs contrary to the society they lived in. Not long after he penned them, four Quakers would be hanged on the Boston Common for preaching the gospel as they saw it. Although such historical facts are not generally discussed in Sunday School, there are literally hundreds and thousands of such examples from Christian nations and Christian empires. Roger Williams saw what happened to the nature of the church when she became common, easily adaptable to new rulers and new policies, and in time quite willing to take the lives of those who disagreed with her. His caustic words, written in 1644, regarding those who would follow this path ring out a warning of the judgment to come:
Such practices commonly proceed from that great whore the Church of Rome, whose Daughters are like their Mother, and all of a bloody nature, as most commonly all Whores be.
In the last days there will be two women claiming to be the Bride of Messiah. Each person will have to choose which one he will take identity with, according to the light in his conscience. This choice will reveal the secrets of his heart, and his willingness to do the will of God.
"Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." [John Adams, 1798]
"That 'wall' was originally introduced [by Jefferson] as, and understood to be, a one-directional wall protecting the church from the government. This was also Jefferson's understanding..."5
With the beginning of the Christian empire under Constantine and his successors in the fourth century, Christian authorities gained the opportunity to persecute their Jewish rivals and every other non-Christian group. From the time of Constantine to our own twentieth century, Christians have made frequent use of this opportunity.6