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Separation of Church & State

Paul Dean
Paul Dean
2020 19 Feb

There aren’t many phrases abused or misused more than the phrase separation of church and state. For example, “A Rutgers University-New Brunswick professor told a student that he should not quote Bible verses in essays because of the ‘separation of church and state.’” “The professor also added that the Bible ‘may not be for everyone,’ and its use in academic papers may be offensive to some, including ‘a Muslim or Jewish person.’”

Confusion is the Norm in our Culture

A couple of comments on my way to the main issue. First, quoting the bible in an essay or academic paper is not an issue of separation of church and state. Second, the point of an academic paper is to draw conclusions based on research. Whether the sources or conclusions offend anyone is irrelevant. It’s not a concern. Moreover, why would someone be offended at a quotation from a supporting source? We’ve become so politically minded, victimized, and offended as a culture we can’t think straight. It really is spiritual blindness.

But it gets worse. It turns out the paper was “an autobiographical paper assigned” to the student. Frankly, one can say anything in such an essay. Of even more concern perhaps is the state of education in our country when a college professor wallows in such ignorance. The professor actually told the student he shouldn’t quote “scripture in academic papers unless you are commenting on scripture.” While one doesn’t offer personal opinion in an academic paper, remember, this paper was autobiographical, not academic. At the same time, there are any number of reasons scripture might be quoted in an academic paper. The bible is tremendous source material for historical and philosophical background in any number of ancient cultures for example.

Church to be Protected from the State

But the real issue is separation of church and state. The student said “his right to free speech and religion has been violated. He also argued that the separation of church and state . . . is supposed to protect the church from the state.” True.

The first amendment starts this way: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” There are two clauses there: the establishment clause and the free exercise clause. The essential meaning is that government can’t establish a state religion or force religion on anyone. Neither can the government prevent people from exercising their religion. As long as one’s religious exercise doesn’t infringe on the rights of others, he is free to exercise his religion as he pleases. That means that students may pray or read their bibles on school grounds when they’re not in class. They can talk about God to their classmates or teachers. It means that people may invoke God in the public square. It means that political leaders may be sworn in by placing their hands on the bible, the Koran, or any other religious object. You can’t pray loudly in a movie theatre any more than you can yell “fire” in such a context. But confusion abounds over such a simple issue. That reality is destructive of liberty. It’s deadly. It’s a culture killer. Ultimately, it’s a people killer. When religious freedom goes, all freedoms go. What that happens, the state can and will kill whenever it sees the need.

Wall of Separation between Church and State

Let’s wrap this thing with another important and abused phrase: wall of separation. Most interpret this well-known phrase to mean that God and the public square can’t meet. Again, no God-talk in government assemblies and the like or even public space in general. Of course, such interpretations couldn’t be further from the truth. The phrase actually comes from President Thomas Jefferson. In the early days of America there were state churches, and true religious freedom didn’t exist. In the midst of the battle for that freedom, Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association (Danbury Ct.) in response to a letter from them outlining their concerns in their struggle for religious freedom. He wrote to assure them that they had said freedom, and that there was a “wall of separation” between the state and the church such that the church was protected from the state. The separation of church and state means just that today: that the state may not establish religion or hinder the free exercise thereof. May the clouds of confusion be rolled back like a scroll, and may freedom ring from sea to shining sea.

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