topical: the Wall of Separation
Separation protects the integrity of both of state and religion.
Like I said at the start of worship, this morning, the sermon will be different from my average, from my run-of-the-mill. Instead of focusing on the Holy Trinity or a bit of scripture or a piece of the Small Catechism, I’ll concentrate, instead, on how we ELCA Lutherans understand the relationship between church and state. Or more appropriately, between religion and state. As a denomination, we do have a few teaching resources on the subject. Or at least, we did in my part of what would become the ELCA. That helped us think things through. Church and State: A Lutheran Perspective. Religious Liberty in the United States. But there’s no “official” statement. A my-way-or-the-highway kind of thing. The ELCA’s a big tent. With a lot of different ideas. And truth is, if you want to find someone who disagrees with what I’m about to say … well, you won’t have to look too long or too hard. After all, this is America in the Twenty-First century! But I’ll do my best to explain what I believe. As a Lutheran. As an American. And to provide a rhyme and a reason for this ministry.
I’ll begin with a simple statement … I’m a believer – a firm believer – in the separation of church and state. I want a wall between the two. A high wall. A long wall. A thick wall. A strong wall. Nobody’s saying it – at least, not too loudly – but I think a lot of the problems we’re facing, nowadays, as a country … the cause of many of our crises … is that we haven’t maintained that wall all that well for going on decades. So, today, politicians are acting more like preachers and political parties like denominations. More saint than patriot, true believer than statesman. Ready to burn any heretic at the stake. Politics, today, is religion. And religion is politics. And it’s a dangerous place to be … especially for anyone caught in the crossfire.
So, maybe the place for us to begin is where we begin most Sunday mornings. By admitting as a church, admitting as THE church, that we don’t play well with others! We fall short! We miss the mark! Notably, as a European, as an American institution, we haven’t had the best track record. Actually, it’s been terrible. We’re so much better at damning people than we are at saving them. So much better at casting stones than, simply, walking away. The way we’ve treated “us.” The way we’ve treated ‘them.” It’s been nothing to brag about. Catholic v. Lutheran. Lutheran v. Calvinist. Everyone against the Mennonites. For the first hundred-or-so years of the Reformation, wars – both large and small – raged across the continent. All in the name of God. All in the name of religion. Millions died. Tens of millions. In the French Wars of Religion. During the Thirty Years War. Seventeen of those thirty years, the Swedish army fought in Germany. They destroyed two thousand castles. Eighteen thousand villages. Fifteen hundred towns. And they were hardly the worst.
Afterward, the survivors came here. To a new place. A safe place. To start over. And as we fought for our independence, when we were constructing a new nation, the memories were, still, fresh. The wounds, still, raw. So, when it came to religion, when it came to church, the founders said, “Never again! No more! Not here!” No mixing of church and state! No blending of state and church! The unitedStates would not be a Catholic country. The unitedStates would not be a Lutheran country. They wouldn’t be an Anglican one. They would –simply put – be just that … the unitedStates!
Of course, most of the founders were Christians. That is, only, to be expected. But they did something rare. They worked out their political salvation with fear and trembling. Not with arrogance, with self-righteousness; but humbleness and modesty. And the very first words of a Bill of Rights … “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ….” Congress shall make no law establishing or prohibiting religion! People – Americans – were free to believe whatever! Put another way, they would be Americans whatever they believed! They would be Americans whether they believed or not!
That’s what Jefferson called “the wall of separation.” And its purpose, James Madison writes, “is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.” That wall, first and foremost, wasn’t to preserve religion. It was to protect the country FROM religion! Like I said, we Christians – we, European-Christians – have never played well with others. We still don’t! All we need is a mirror to understand what the founders were afraid of. A mirror and the courage to look at our reflection in it.
And twelve score and five years later, it’s, still, all we need. Today, there are over two hundred distinct church bodies, here in the U.S. Most of them, right here in West Texas! Over two hundred distinct church bodies, forty of which are Lutheran! How can we be one nation under god, when we can’t, even, be one church! And that’s not taking into account other religions! Muslims, Sunni and Shia! Three branches of Buddhism! Four sects of Hinduism! In God We Trust? Which god! Which gods! That’s why the original motto of the new nation was E Pluribus Unum … Out of Many One! Out of diversity, unity! It’s easier, just, not to go there! To construct a wall between the two and keep them apart! Church on one side; state on the other! Religion and politics divided and disconnected! Unless, of course, it garners votes! Or it gains contributions! Then, slowly … surely … that wall can be deconstructed. After all, what harm could it do?
It’s not that the founders weren’t Christians. They were. Or that they were out to destroy religion. They weren’t. It’s that their vision of what this country would be, what this country could become, was greater than anything they’d seen in Europe. America would not become an Islamic nation. And it wouldn’t become a Jewish nation. And contrary to popular opinion, America wouldn’t be a Christian nation, either. It would be, only, a nation! Because as long as that wall stood … Because as long as that wall stands … it worked! It works! And as an American, for me, that’s a good thing! As a minister of the Church of Christ, that’s a very good thing! It keeps me from lording it over those around me! And it prevents them from doing the same to me! And the country is better off for it! Both the church and the state! Both politics and religion!
But then, maybe, when you get right down to it, none of it’s about liberty. And maybe it’s not all about freedom. Or faith. Or hope. Or love. But maybe it’s about power and control. My friends, for generations, for centuries, that wall has saved us. Saved us from others. But most of all, saved us from ourselves. There will come a time when we’re touched by the better angels. But for now, maybe our greatest challenge – as a church and as a nation – is standing face-to-face with our own worst enemies … ourselves!