Separation of Church & State: God Will Do Just Fine

This is my third and last blog commenting on Steven Waldman’s FOUNDING FAITH: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America.  My other blogs can be found at The First Amendment and Freedom of Religion.

In the final analysis it appears that the notion of the separation of church and state was most strongly supported by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom served as presidents of the United States and both of whom are founding fathers of our country.   However, neither appears to have favored the separation of church and state because of what we today would refer to as atheistic or secular values.  Both seemed to have held to some degree that, in what Waldman calls the “marketplace of ideas, reason would prevail.”  Good ideas and good forms of religion would prosper, and any religion that needed state support to survive wasn’t worth saving anyway.   Waldman thinks neither Jefferson nor Madison wanted Christianity to fail, and both believed that when Christianity is left free of government interference – either support or suppression – it will do just fine.  And to the degree that each valued his own understanding of Christianity, they wanted Christianity to succeed, but not a form of it that was reliant on the government to survive.  And in this, these two men were most supported by the evangelical Christians of their day.  It was the evangelicals who for the most part were the dissenters who had no government which favored their independent ideas.  It was they who felt it most advantageous to their form of Christianity to separate the Church from the state.

Thomas Jefferson and his supporters felt “God does not need the support of government to triumph.”    In his own handwritten notes when his opponents objected that religion would decline if not supported by the state, he jotted, “Gates of Hell shall not prevail…”

James Madison like Thomas Jefferson opposed presidential proclamations for days of fasting or thanksgiving because they both felt the commander in chief was not the “preacher in chief.”    Madison felt that every presidential act is in fact political – an act of a politician, and that when politicians begin invoking God, you can no longer trust God!  His attitude Waldman sums up as “How on earth does it follow that if you treasure religion, you’d want government touching it?” Madison believed the very role of religion was to call people to prayer and fasting, and so no president should ever do so.

Madison, in Waldman’s words, thought relying on the state to support religion showed “a profound lack of confidence in God and a disconcerting shallowness of personal faith.” 

As an Orthodox Christian living in America, I have certainly benefitted from the separation of church and state that was hammered out by America’s founding fathers.  I belong to a minority religion, and a very tiny one in America.  And yet I am freely able to practice my faith.  To the extent that Orthodoxy has attracted converts in this country, I have to say that Madison’s ideas that freedom means the better ideas will win in the marketplace of religious debate has benefitted the Orthodox Church.  Certainly Orthodoxy is given full opportunity to show how its way of following Christ is the continuation of the ancient and historic Christian Church and Orthodoxy is given opportunity to defend its claim to be true Christianity.   Orthodoxy however has been slow in understanding free market principles when it comes to religion in America, and has continued to embrace some “old world” ideas when it comes to understanding the importance of exemplary leadership and how the Orthodox Church is not the only item available in the religious marketplace.   Madison felt government support allows weak faiths to survive, while freedom encourages strong faiths to thrive.   That is a challenge to the Orthodox way of thinking – for the Orthodox like to think they have the superior product in the market, and that self assessment should not have to be put to the test of open competition.   But in our American homeland, free market thinking applies to religion just as it does to all other aspects of our lives.  And if we believe we have the superior Christian faith, we are going to have to prove our claim or watch our ship sink, for the state will not keep us afloat.

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