The Conservative Christian Case for Separation of Church and State

What follows is a response to the actions of Rev. H. Wayne Williams who, in defiance of the IRS Law denying churches the ability to publicly support political candidates, has chosen to endorse Gordon Howie for Governor of South Dakota from the pulpit. Howie has asked for pastoral support and in return has promised to assist those pastors in taking their inevitable IRS trials to the Supreme Court in an effort to end separation of church and state in America.

Pastor, I recognize your frustration, and I see how things have come to this. For years America has only shrugged at religion, and recently Christianity has been caught in a violent tug of war between Republicans and Democrats. We feel, as leaders, entitled to make political endorsements. Why shouldn’t we—particularly in a democracy where endorsements translate directly to power—take up our biblically-informed opinion, get behind a pulpit, and urge our people to support a candidate? Why shouldn’t we support the rulers we stand to benefit the most from, and give them a divine leg up?

For the historically minded among us, the reasons for not bringing our spiritual authority into political campaigns are blood red. For nearly 2,000 years our faith forefathers were persecuted and oppressed; not always by the irreligious, but more often by competing tribes within Christianity. Clerics would jockey for favor in the kingdoms of men, then use any clout gained to suppress the views of their theological enemies.

Over and again we stamped out those who did not fit into our au courant idea of orthodoxy and we entrenched ourselves into division, using the steel of our ruler’s swords to proclaim our theological certainty. Christians have killed and tortured more of their own than any other group in history, and this was possible solely because of the unholy union of church and state. Pastors gave rulers their blessing, and rulers returned the favor by silencing the pastor’s critics, a fantastic deal for the pastor who courts the powers, but a dangerous and painful reality for those who do not.

There isn’t a Christian denomination in existence that has not been slaughtered by its theological opponents. The Pope used his political power in Spain to launch the Inquisition. Bloody Mary earned her moniker by burning 300 dissenters of Roman Catholicism at the stake. The Calvinists and Lutherans used their influence over the German princes to commit near genocide of Catholics all over Europe during the 30 Years War. Catholics in the third Crusade almost exterminated the Orthodox church in Constantinople. Anabaptists have been drowned, burned, and exiled under each of the other major sects.

For almost 1500 years, Christians wielded political power to slay one another; until the founding of America. America was the first country without a designated faith, here was the only place in the world where Catholics and Protestants, Radical Reformationists and Orthodox (not to mention Jews, Muslims, non-believers and others) could live as neighbors. An accomplishment not won by better theology nor a love of peace, but because each lacked the ability to oppress one another by controlling the government.

We have created a land where church and state are separated to protect them from one another, not to diminish the role of either. The integrity of the church is jeopardized when politicians can appeal to spiritual leaders and gain their endorsement because the opportunities for abuse and ambition are too rampant. The same quid pro quo corruption that taints those tempted by lobbyists will await pastors when their support can yield inexhaustible American power. This is why America has passed laws to preserve the dignity and purity of the pastoral office, exchanging tax exemption (a unique phenomenon in the world) with the trust that the nation’s charitable goodwill can’t be used as a political force.

Christianity has flourished in America, due in large to the inability of any one religious sect to silence the others by electing one of their own. Consider how different things would be if all along pastors had the ability to endorse candidates, if the elected then changed the social landscape to keep the favor of the pastors—like Mr. Howie is promising to do today. What if JFK had been endorsed by the Pope, what might he have done to protestants? What if Billy Graham had used his crusades to call for the reelection of his close friend, Richard Nixon?

Pastors needn’t remain neutral when it comes to social change. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. championed civil rights, Rev. Charles Finney fought to abolish slavery, and many more contributed to all the progressive reforms of the 19th century, from Women’s Suffrage to Child Labor Laws. But we stir change by stinging the national conscience, by being a prophetic witness for biblical values and obedience to Christ from the pulpit, not by taking the dangerous short cut of merely electing somebody to make a sweeping change in our favor.

Pastors are here to bring the optimism of a better world, a Kingdom of God where it can be on Earth as it is in Heaven. We aren’t here to arbitrate the national discussion, or to be some sort of referee who awards polling points to one side while punishing the other using our immense spiritual clout. Are we willing to compromise our ability to provide hope for the chance to pronounce judgment? Will we use the cross as Caesar did, to dominate political foes, or as Jesus did, to liberate the unseen?

It desecrates our pulpit to yield it to politics. We are called to something higher than to meddle in the affairs of ambitious men. We are not so Holy that we can merely baptize a candidate, and never drink the poison of his words. We do not stump for senators, we do not campaign for congressman, we do not preach for presidents, because the name of Christ is too precious to risk on a common election, no matter how important the issues at stake may seem. We cannot allow Jesus to become a political puppet, a sock on the arm of the statesman. Our role is to translate the values of scripture into the hearts and minds of every American, not to rule those Americans or force our values on them by manipulating the vote. The humble witness of Jesus is weakened when it is communicated through the edicts of rulers rather than the powerful persuasion of changed lives, hearts, and minds. The Kingdom of God cannot be voted into existence.

Pastor H. Wayne Williams, I beg you to take your opinion to the poll and not the pulpit. Encourage your church to lobby their convictions, but don’t let a lobbyist lead your church. Your vote belongs to a candidate, but your pulpit belongs to Christ, so “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give unto God what is God’s.”