“O Belteshazzar (Daniel), chief of the magicians, because I know that the spirit of the holy gods is in you and that no mystery is too difficult for you, tell me the visions of my dream that I saw and their interpretation….” (Daniel 4:9 ESV)
It is amazing that a representative of a minority nation like Israel could have such political and religious influence on a powerful ruler like Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel begs an important question for our own day: Should Christians avoid involvement in politics, rather than try to influence the State with Christian beliefs? Or, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, does the First Amendment establish a “wall of separation between Church and State”?
A blog post will not do justice to this argument, but in the spirit of Independence Day I will share some thoughts on this controversial matter.
First, an all too brief historical background: Jefferson’s phrase comes from his letter to the Danbury Baptists, a persecuted minority who wanted to eliminate the official “state church,” not to establish one. They simply wanted to protect their First Amendment right to a “free exercise of religion.”
But does this mean a complete separation of Church and State, as interpreted by a 1947 Supreme Court decision (Everson v. Board of Education) ? Does Jefferson’s wall, by limiting a religion’s ability to influence public life, violate rather than protect the free exercise of religion? Should the State have the authority to define what religion is and how it should function in society? When the State, quoting Jefferson’s wall, defines religion as a strictly private matter, does it exceed its Constitutional limitations?
To be clear, this is not an endorsement of the Christian right or left — far from it. There is a profound difference between serving Christ and serving the State, and it is very easy to drift towards the latter. But the First Amendment, as I understand it, allows religious perspectives to compete in the public sphere, without government inhibition, on the same terms as other values. Jefferson’s wall does not seem to allow this.