The separation of church and state is also established in the first amendment to the Constitution. It grew out of the colonists’ experience with state-run churches. In Europe, the political rulers had authority over the church. Only one church organization was allowed, and people who dissented were subject to legal persecution. Thus the Constitution included the separation-of-church-and-state clause to avoid this sort of heavy handed political repression of religious freedom.
Since that time, however, the separation of church and state has been reinterpreted as a separation of religion and state. This has since devolved into a prohibition against any acknowledgement of the spiritual in any governmental entity. Clearly this was not the intention of the original founders. If that were the case, then there would be no mention of God in the founding documents. Appeals to God were, in fact, common in the founding of this country.
This change is primarily a response to the growth of a politically powerful atheistic segment in society. The growth of this segment is the result of the slow but steady increase in materialistic and naturalistic philosophy in the West—basically a denial of spiritual realities.
Many of the touch points where this battle is being fought are, for the most part, not particularly significant: for example, debates on who can pray in school and when; debates on what sorts of documents can be publicly displayed; and so on. How these particular issues play out do not seem to be too significant for our cultural life, but the general trend and the drive behind the battles are very damaging.
Effectively, separation of church and state has restricted the kinds of issues that can be raised in public discourse. Only issues that deal with worldly material needs are allowed. We constantly harangue over taxes and budgets. We debate about fair labor laws and immigration. National security is contrasted with civil liberties. All of these aspects of our public life deal with our mundane interests and needs. Missing is any discussion of the fact that man is not just a material being. Instead, that man is purely material is assumed without debate in the public sphere. The assumption tacitly implies that the things of importance are material: the types of problems that we have are purely material; solutions to problems are to be accomplished through purely material means. The idea that our deepest and most profound problems are spiritual is not even on the table.
I am not suggesting that material needs are not in the purview of public life. Nor am I advocating a “Christian political agenda” as a solution to our problems. Instead, I am pointing out how the trends in our culture have devalued and marginalized many of the most important aspects of public discourse. This is perhaps dangerous to our society. But more importantly, to our great loss, it encourages us to devalue the significance of our spiritual nature.
One of the main ways that this reinterpretation of church and state has affected our culture is in education. Our goal in education is to pass on the ideas, values, and skills that will help our children live the best lives they can. Spiritual questions—such as right and wrong, what it means to be a human, and whether there is a supreme being—are central to this task. But in the current system, to raise these questions is, in fact, illegal! This sort of restriction on education surely never darkened the worst nightmares of the writers of the Constitution.
Another important consequence of this reinterpretation of church and state has to do with how society approaches social services. Federal and state social services can only consider the material well being of those in need. All analyses and researches into our social problems are purposely blind to our most important problems, spiritual problems. Such an approach is bound to lessen the success of these services. The need for the spiritual in social services can be seen in Alcoholics Anonymous. My understanding is that AA promotes the idea of a higher being in its treatment. If AA were restricted from encouraging the attendees to consider a higher power, the program would be significantly less effective, both socially and individually.
Man is a spiritual being, and everyone recognizes this whether or not they admit to it. All feel the need for purpose. All feel the need for connection and love. All feel the call to the transcendent. The idea that we should eliminate this aspect of our lives from the public sphere is self-defeating at best and malicious at worst.