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After the fall

The First Amendment - Religion's safe haven

When 300 clergy gathered for Brite Divinity School's annual Minister's Week, religion professor Ron Flowers, a nationally-recognized scholar on the separation of church and state, urged the group to protect religion by discouraging "faith-based" government initiatives.

By Ron Flowers
religion professor

Following are excerpts from Flowers' remarks:

I am honored to have been asked to speak today, to be in the long tradition of those who say virtually the last word to Minister's Week attendees every year. I have chosen to speak to you on a subject that ought to be important to all Americans -- religious freedom.

The trend in church-state relations these days is to combine religion and government as much as possible. Many agitate for government-sponsored prayer in public schools. Several state legislatures have passed laws authorizing the posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings. Many clamor for government money to pay the tuition for students who go to parochial schools. In 1996 a federal law was passed allowing "faith-based" institutions to use government money to support their charitable ministries.

A consistent position of the religious right is that separation of church and state is hostile to religion.

But the concept of separation of church and state is not hostile to religion.

Rather it is based on the recognition by the founders that people respond in different ways to what they perceive as the Divine. They ought to be able to do that without the encouragement, nor the opposition, of government. That is the foundation of the American concept of separation of church and state.

The separation of church and state is not hostile to religion.

Remember that the concept has two parts, no establishment and free exercise. The no-establishment principle means the government must stay out of the affairs of religion. It also means religion cannot utilize government to get its way with the people.

The free exercise principle means that as long as their behavior is lawful, people are free to practice religion as they choose. Religious people and institutions have the right to be religious as their consciences dictate. They also have the right to make their voices heard.

As I indicated a moment ago, most of the problems these days are on the no-establishment side of the equation. People on the religious right, and now even the President of the United States, insist that the government assist religion in its work. It is as if they believe religion is too weak to be important in people's lives without the authority and power of government behind it.

In a multitude of ways, many try to create mechanisms for the state to do the work of the church. But if the state is allowed to do the work of the church, it will marginalize the church.

I am amazed that so many Christians are eager to utilize the state to do their Christian work for them. If the state were to do it, churches would become less important in American life.

Churches must reserve to themselves those parts of religion that are their peculiar responsibility: prayer and worship, religious symbols, nurturing faith and providing social services with a decidedly religious motivation and flavor.

One reason many are interested in commingling church and state is the allure of money. An example is the concept of government funding of faith-based charitable services.

Forgetting the admonition of I Timothy 6:10, "For the love of money is the root of all evils, . . ." many support this plan because they have been seduced by the idea of receiving government money to do their charitable activities.

But problems abound. Here are two: One, government funding brings with it government supervision, and two, government money may discourage parishioners' contributions to churches. Parishioners may say: "If the government is paying for our church's charitable activities, why should I give money to the church?"

I believe religious leaders, rather than shout to the government "Show me the money," should ponder Jesus' question: "For what shall it profit someone, if one shall gain the whole world, and lose one's own soul?"

During a discussion of President Bush's "Faith-Based Initiative" one minister said, "It surely will compromise the churches' will and courage to criticize the government." And I thought, That's it. That is the fundamental difficulty with this and with any other way the churches get too cozy with the government. Whenever the church comes under the influence of the state, when it becomes an extension of the state, its prophetic ministry is compromised. It no longer has the independence to "speak truth to power."

It is for the health of religious institutions and the health of the state that separation must be maintained. Separation of church and state enables churches to perform this valuable function in American society.

This function can be approached through the concept called "civil religion." The clearest expression of it is found in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

This statement affirms the existence of God, and claims that God created human beings. God also gave them rights. The rights are defined broadly: equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Inherent in God's creation are moral principles that can be identified as rights due to all humans. Furthermore, the rights are "unalienable." They are birthright rights; they cannot legitimately be taken away by anyone. God has given these rights to humans and it is the duty of the state to make them real in the lives of its citizens.

Although the rights are inherently the possessions of every human, they require some mechanism to actualize them. That is the role of the state -- to actualize those rights and protect them.

The concrete expression of trying to actualize those rights in the American experience was the writing of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. If the government does not allow its citizens to enjoy those rights, then it is acting contrary to the will of God. The nation stands under the judgment of God. We, as a nation and as individuals, live under a transcendent point of reference to which we are accountable.

What is this transcendent point of reference to? It is that human beings are finite. This includes nations, laws and governments. A principal role of the religious institutions of the nation is to remind our leaders "You, too, are mortal; you are not God."

The role of religious institutions should be to challenge the government to be true to its own religious/moral heritage, to admonish the government to actualize the unalienable rights in the lives of all citizens. By speaking out on public issues, religious institutions and leaders can contribute to the creation of a moral and humane society by both referring back to the moral code of the civil religion and saying to the government and any national figure, "You, too, are finite."

But while pointing out the necessity for humble and humane government, religious leaders must remember that any church, denomination, or religious pressure group is also finite and lacks the complete truth. The particularities of its theology and/or religious practices cannot become government policy. The public influence of religious groups must be by persuasion, not by coercion. Neither the government nor any part of it can be transformed into an extension of any sect or specific theology.

So, we are back to the separation of church and state, the guarantor of religious freedom. This freedom includes the right to speak out on the moral problems of the day. One of the most important roles for churches to play is to remind the nation and its various officials that they are limited. Religious institutions need to keep that message alive.

I just suggested that clergy have a vested interest in the preservation of religious freedom. It seems to me that of all people, clergy should recognize the importance of religious freedom. You have been able to respond to the call of God to pursue what Perry Gresham called "the disciplines of the high calling" without any interference from civil authorities. In many places in the world, you would not have been free to do that.

You have been and are the direct beneficiaries of this most fundamental of freedoms, not just as Americans, but in your chosen profession. I hope you believe religious freedom is worth defending, not only for ourselves, but for those generations of men and women who come after us who may hear the call of God for ministry. I challenge you to believe that one of the disciplines of the high calling is to be an advocate for and guardian of the separation of church and state and religious freedom.

I hope I have given you something to think about.

Contact Flowers at