In God We Trust

Date: July 5, 2009
Scriptures: Luke 20:20-26
Sermon: In God We Trust
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells

Speaking at a media event in Turkey on April 6, on his first overseas tour as president, Barack Obama declared, “I’ve said before that one of the great strengths of the United States is – although as I mentioned we have a very large Christian population – we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation, or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.”

The backlash was immediate. Gary Bauer of American Values replied, “The last time I checked, the pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock were Christians, not Muslims. Our Founding Fathers were inspired by the Bible, not the Koran.”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich asserted, “Obama went to Turkey, and I think was fundamentally misleading about the nature of America. We are not a secular country.”

Karl Rove responded, “Yeah, look, America is a nation built on faith.” [Church and State, May 2009, p. 21]

Bauer, Gingrich, and Rove may be surprised to learn that the administration of President George Washington negotiated a treaty with Muslim leaders of north Africa and in the treaty it was stated explicitly that this new country, the United States, was not founded on Christianity. To reduce fears that this new nation would be hostile to Islam, Article II of the treaty states, “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion. . .” The Treaty with Tripoli was passed unanimously by the Senate under the administration of John Adams in 1797. [See Americans United for the Separation of Church and State pamphlet “Is America A ‘Christian Nation’?: Religion, Government and Religious Freedom”]

I wonder if Gary Bauer, Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, and others who support their views would light into founding fathers Washington and Adams insisting that the US is a Christian country?

The truth is, those who first settled this land from Europe did promote Christianity. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, church attendance was mandatory. Those who were truant without illness or permissible excuse were pilloried (put in the stocks) with an ear nailed to the wood. Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were banished from Massachusetts for heretical beliefs. [See Wikipedia, “Massachusetts Bay Colony,” “Roger Williams,” “Anne Hutchinson”]

The first colonies perpetuated the European model of a state-supported church. But by the time the Constitution and Bill of Rights were created, our forbears, after much discussion and debate, endorsed the wholly new concept of the separation of church and state. This new nation would experiment with a new model for the relationship between government and religion.

The first amendment to the Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . .” In addition, article VI of the constitution prohibits “religious tests” for public office.

In light of the church/state problems in Europe and the oppression and tyranny generated in the colonial period, our forbears chose a new path – separation of church and state. Past experience indicated that when religion and government are enmeshed, both are compromised.

Let’s take a few moments to look at some contemporary issues related to the important principle of separation of church and state.

Issues around the separation of church and state and the public school system have been prominent in recent decades. The legal ramifications of the separation of church and state allow for students to pray and read religious materials during free time in the school day. The law allows for religion to be discussed in the context of the curriculum particularly in subjects like social studies, geography, literature, history, and the arts. Religious groups and clubs may use school facilities outside of the official school day. Charisma, a Christian magazine, reports that there are 10,000 Bible clubs meeting in America’s schools. [Americans United for the Separation of Church and State pamphlet “America’s Legacy of Religious Liberty: Pass It On”] The elimination of mandatory prayer in school was not the elimination of religion from school. During the school day, the school is not to sponsor activities which involve religious indoctrination, proselytizing, or mandatory religious activities.

The intent is not to be anti-religion, but to support the family and faith community as the appropriate settings for religious instruction and guidance. The separation of church and state leaves decisions about matters of religion to the family and to the individual. The family and faith community are the appropriate context for religious practice, study, worship, and prayer, not the public school system. [See Americans United for the Separation of Church and State pamphlet “Prayer and the Public Schools: Religion, Education and Your Rights]

Issues around education and separation of church and state also involve school vouchers. Churches and faith communities are free to establish schools and educational institutions. They are free to include religious instruction and religious practice in the curriculum. They are free to teach the religious doctrines of creationism, and intellectual design in the curriculum. But the voucher system involves taxpayer dollars being given to such schools, and that amounts to state support of religion, a violation of the first amendment of separation of church and state.

Another current area of debate in church/state discussion involves the faith-based initiatives movement instituted by executive order by the previous administration and not yet dismantled by the current administration. This involves taxpayer dollars being given to faith communities to do social service work. If the money is used to upgrade facilities, then the faith community benefits. The faith community can use religious criteria in hiring. It also opens the door for religious activities to be provided along with the social services. For example, you maybe expected to attend a worship service before receiving a free meal. Or children in an after school tutoring program may be expected to do practice reading from a children’s Bible. This mixing of tax dollars and religion is in clear violation of the separation of church and state. If a church wants to run a program like that with no tax money, fine. But tax money is not to be used to promote religion. [See Americans United for the Separation of Church and State pamphlet “The “Faith-Based’ Initiative: Religion, Social Services and Your Rights”]

The last area we’ll look at today involving church and state is marriage. For decades, clergy have functioned on behalf of the state officiating at weddings. The individual was clergyperson was free to perform or not perform a wedding ceremony according to conscience. Now we have the current movement toward equal civil rights in marriage for same gender couples. So, clergy are free to perform or not perform such ceremonies again, according to conscience and church governance. However, if I feel it is an expression of my religious commitment as a clergy person to perform a same gender wedding and the state does not recognize it, is the state interfering with my religious expression?

In addition, the movement promoting marriage between one man and one woman is based on religious principles. If this is codified into law, is that not the state enforcing one religious viewpoint on the entire population?

Until these issues are resolved according to constitutional principles not religious principles, a growing number of clergy are not performing any wedding ceremonies, same gender or a man and a woman. They are refusing to be complicitors in a system that is denying the civil rights of same gender couples and violating the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state.

Thomas Jefferson observed that with the ratification of the first amendment to the Constitution, the American people had created a “wall of separation between church and state.” [Americans United for the Separation of Church and State pamphlet “America’s Legacy of Religious Liberty: Pass It On”] While the wall has had cracks and chinks throughout the years, it has served this nation well and has received broad support from varying political perspectives.

In a speech given in 1960, President John F. Kennedy declared, “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant or Jewish – where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source, where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”

Senator Barry Goldwater, a noted conservative Republican, also strongly backed church-state separation. In a 1994 essay, Goldwater wrote, “I am a conservative Republican, but I believe in democracy and the separation of church and state. The conservative movement is founded on the simple tenet that people have the right to live life as they please as long as they don’t hurt anyone else in the process.”

In a famous 1981 speech, Goldwater noted, “By maintaining the separation of church and state, the United States has avoided the intolerance which has so divided the rest of the world with religious wars Can any of us refute the wisdom of Madison and the other framers? Can anyone look at the carnage in Iran, the bloodshed in Northern Ireland or the bombs bursting in Lebanon and yet question the dangers of injecting religious issues into the affairs of state?” [Americans United for the Separation of Church and State pamphlet “America’s Legacy of Religious Liberty: Pass It On”]

While religion is the source of conflict and contention in many places around the world, here in the US it is estimated that 2,000 faith groups and denominations are active and coexisting fairly harmoniously. [Americans United for the Separation of Church and State pamphlet “America’s Legacy of Religious Liberty: Pass It On”]

In Europe, where until recently in most countries, church and state were still in partnership, there is declining interest in religion. In England, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands, fewer than one in ten people attend religious services. In the US, nearly 50%f of the population attends religious services regularly. 83% say they have prayed in the past week, and 95% say they believe in God. In addition, Americans donate an estimated $81 billion annually to religious institutions. Separation of church and state has led to a vibrant, rich religious landscape in this country. [Americans United for the Separation of Church and State pamphlet “America’s Legacy of Religious Liberty: Pass It On”]

Jesus did not come to establish a governmental system, he came to create beloved community where all people are treated with reverence, dignity, and respect. He came to bring people closer to God/the Divine/the Sacred/the Source. He came to bring people closer to each other as neighbors. For us as Christians, separation of church and state means that there are no restrictions or limitations upon our freedom to follow Jesus and to live out our Christian convictions. We are truly free to love our neighbor, love our enemy, work for peace and justice, worship one day a week or every day of the week, engage in activities of charity and compassion, comfort the grieving, visit the sick and those in prison, heal the earth, help the poor and homeless, and donate countless dollars to the church. We are fully free to live the Jesus life – to serve others, to live justly, to worship, to advocate. There are absolutely no limits from society or government on our freedom to follow Christ. So what are we waiting for? Let’s let our religious freedom RING! Amen.

Much of the material for this sermon came from the website and print materials provided by the organization, “Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.” The executive director of Americans United, Barry Linn, is an ordained United Church of Christ pastor, as well as a lawyer.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.