As a Christian minister in South Carolina for 32 years, I occasionally discuss in my sermons the importance of the separation of church and state in preserving religious freedom. My main message during these sermons is surprising to some: Religious freedom thrives in the United States because the government cannot favor or promote one faith, not in spite of it.
The Church is always stronger, more vital, and more faithful to the Gospel when it is not attempting to contort itself to the needs and desires of politicians. Moreover, Christianity has always declined in vitality when it has forced its will on people. Indeed, Jesus did not carry out a ministry of power over the other but love for the other. In fact, the only true Christian faith is one that is freely chosen. We Christians should do more to woo people to Christ and less to force our understanding of Christ upon them.
If we want to keep our religious institutions strong and attract new adherents to our Christian faith, then we must vigorously protect and reinforce the wall of separation required by our Constitution. That’s why, last year, I spoke out in support of an atheist family, the Andersons, in Chesterfield County when, with the help of the ACLU, they sued over an evangelistic worship service forced on students in an area public middle school.
Our area is amazingly homogeneous. We hardly have any Episcopalians or Catholics, much less non-Christian faith communities. With fewer than 45,000 people and around 200 Protestant churches, our county has not had many opportunities to be challenged by religious diversity. Many in the county think that the Constitution proclaims that the majority rules and minorities must learn to be quiet… or join the majority. Many also believe, wrongly, that the “moral decay” of our nation is caused primarily by the inability of teachers and administrators to lead their students in Christian prayers.
Our religious homogeneity, combined with years of unchallenged tradition and assumptions, led to the unspoken expectation that every institution, including our public schools, should support the Church. Although some people would privately express support for the ACLU lawsuit to me, they were distressingly unwilling to express themselves more boldly to others and in public. Facing these circumstances, as a minister, I was (and continue to be) most grateful that the Andersons and the ACLU stepped up to question these traditions and assumptions.
In this nation, we struggle with acceptance and peace amidst diversity, but we still stand as a shining light to the rest of the world as a place where people are truly free to worship as they please and all creeds and religious doctrine are respected. We would do the people of this planet a grave disservice by granting advantages to one religion over all others. And, perhaps more importantly for those of us who are Christians, we could harm our religious cause and faith beyond repair.