The Marriage of Church and State

The church and the state have attempted to live together for more than 240 years in America.  Like a good marriage, one could argue that they need each other.  Unlike a good marriage, we pretend that they don’t influence each other.  Occasionally, they come together to have a dinner or an event and hope and pray that everyone can get along.

The U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate begin their sessions with prayer.  State houses across the land do the same. The inauguration of a U.S. President includes a solemn prayer. Our currency proclaims that it is “in God we trust.” It is not uncommon to hear a president or presidential candidate conclude their speeches by invoking the “blessing of God.”

In April and in May of this year, the First Pentecostal Church in Palm Bay, Florida hosts the baccalaureate services for Heritage High School and Bayside High School.  Both public High Schools at the request of the students in their senior class have a traditional event to honor God for their achievement and to ask for His blessing on their future.  Like a family reunion, the services are voluntary, well attended and full of memories, speeches, singing and fun.

These occasions where church and state merge seem to be a fabric of our country and filled with tradition and good will.  Most understand the balance and cherish the union.  Others, struggle with the fear of encroachment of one over the other and cry foul.

The balance comes from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution that says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” The establishment clause and the free exercise clause that emerges from this sentence have an awkward dance to protect citizens from the state.

The establishment clause seeks to protect citizens from the state endorsing one religious belief and mandating compliance.  The free exercise clause attempts to protect citizens from the state or state actors infringing on its religious beliefs by eliminating or restricting their ability to live out their sincerely held faith.  Neither clause seeks to protect the state from the church.

The difficulty arises when we attempt to apply these principles to everyday life.  It goes without saying that morality is foundational for both church and state.  George Washington said, “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be obtained without religion.  Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

The state attempts to keep religion at arms length, yet they both have the same foundation of morality and civility.  They can’t successfully live apart because they share the same heritage.  Any attempt to do so is an exercise in futility and folly.

The climate of our culture in a presidential race begs the question, “Who will find the balance that everyone can live with?”  Do we protect all citizens at the expense of those that have sincerely held religious beliefs?  Do we put children in jeopardy to appease a vocal minority?   Is morality subjective or objective?  How far should government go to promote morality if what is moral to one is immoral to another?

History teaches us that washing our hands of the dilemma, like the Roman governor Pontus Pilate in the trial of Jesus, is not a viable solution.  Kicking the can down the street or hiding our head in the sand will not bring about a more sure union.  The leader of the free world must stand on principle rather than popular opinion.  The fabric of our democracy demands it.  Democracy only works when those that rule are ruled by God.

I have heard friends and peers say, “We do not elect a pastor, we elect a president.”  This statement supposes that a president is not required to make any decisions that involve the interpretation and the application of morality to citizens.  It is easy to say, but it is not practical to apply in the absence of clear guidelines of what a president would look like without moral judgment.

The Old Testament in the Bible tells us of a period in the history of the Israeli nation when they demanded a leader who was a king rather than a leader who was a prophet.  They wanted a strong army and a walled city without the pulpit of morality and law.  God gave them what they wished for and it was the beginning of centuries of struggle.

I look forward to speaking to the senior class of Bayside High School on May the 10th as they gather in the church that I pastor.  My message is the same to them as it is to my parishioners and friends.  Regardless of whether it is a country, a class or a citizen, we need a prophet and a king.  We need the church and the state.  We need morality and civility.  It’s a marriage that we must work at.  It’s a marriage that is worth saving.