Christianity · church · government · human rights · politics · religion · U.S. Constitution

The real roots of the church & state debate

Both sides of the separation of church & state debate refer to the exchange between President Thomas Jefferson and the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut to shore up their opinions. The Danbury Baptists showed concern with how powerful a President or government leader could become in matters affecting religious persons since the constitution did not seem specific enough, so they wrote to Jefferson:

Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty – That Religion is at all times and places a Matter between God and Individuals – That no man ought to suffer in Name, person or effects on account of his religious Opinions – That the legitimate Power of civil Government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbour…It is not to be wondered at therefore; if those who seek after power & gain under the pretence of government & Religion should reproach their fellowmen – should reproach their chief Magistrate, as an enemy of religion Law & good order because he will not, dares not assume the prerogative of Jehovah and make Laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ.

They wanted to gauge Jefferson’s stance. Here’s some of Jefferson’s response:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights… [emphasis mine]

The Baptists believed no religious citizen should be made to suffer by the authorities for their religious opinions and that persons serving in the government should not be forced to pass laws dictating and controlling how the churches conduct their business, unless that business harmed their neighbor. Jefferson responded that he agreed with their view as stated in the First Amendment. The government should not play God to dictate to the church, even when rulers are pressured by people wanting to abuse religion or government to expand their power for selfish gain. But today we are witnessing how those who lust for power are twisting the idea of this separation (which isn’t in the Constitution) to do exactly what the Danbury Baptists feared and what Jefferson clearly was against–to heap suffering on those who exercise religious liberty and religious opinions in public forums.

People like young Dakota Ary in Ft. Worth, TX, who recently expressed his religious opinion to a classmate, are made to suffer. People like Prof. Guillermo Gonzalez, who express a belief in intelligent design, are denied tenure at universities. So the “prohibiting of the free exercise thereof” concerning religion is now being promoted, a blatant disregard for the First Amendment.

What caused the early Americans this concern? They knew the abuses that caused the Salem Witch Trials and they were educated about the abuses that took place with the European Inquisitions. Both situations were caused by the church being married to the state.

Constantine the Great, Emperor of Rome, was the first one to institute the union of church and state. Anyone who wasn’t part of his government-established church was forbidden from religious meetings and had their property taken. Roman Emperor Theodosius came along to take it a step further by making a law that only the religion of St. Peter, as preserved by traditions, was the religion of the empire, which was ironic since the real St. Peter was against the traditions of men. Theodosius outlawed all other churches.

Therefore, “[t]he scriptures were now no longer the standard of the Christian faith. What was orthodox [would] be determined by the decisions of fathers and councils; and religion propagated … by imperial edicts and decrees…” [William Jones, The History of the Christian Church (Church History Research and Archives, 5th ed. 1983), v. 1, p. 306.] The opposition was persecuted, silenced, imprisoned, and in many cases put to death. Augustine continued the idea of the church and state being one. The Church of Rome controlled Europe with the help of the princes, kings, queens, and emperors of Europe for centuries until the Reformation took place.

However, the Reformation, instead of bringing about true religious liberty, just served to establish competing state churches to that of the Church of Rome. One part of the Protestant state church was called Lutheran, while the other part followed John Calvin and established the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the Church of England, and the Dutch Reformed Church. Calvinist churches used the same tactics as the Roman Church, using governments to persecute those who did not conform to what they thought Christianity should be. But there were some rulers like Queen Elizabeth I and King James who did not espouse such practices.

Why were the Calvinists so similar to the Rome Church? Why did both Protestants and Catholics perpetuate persecution both during and after the Reformation? In short, because of a man named John Standock. John Standock was a professor at the University of Paris in the 16th Century & Augustinian in his beliefs. He was known for abusing his students with asceticism (austere self-discipline and abstinence from worldly pleasures). He forced his students to drink water from a tainted well, made them stay in rooms with crumbling plaster that were near a latrine (open sewer), gave them severe beatings till they bled if they were “unruly”, and made them consume stale bread, rotten eggs, and sour wine. Two of his students were John Calvin and Ignatius Loyola. Loyola founded the Society of Jesus, who we call the Jesuits. Jesuits became the most powerful order of Roman Catholic priests. Calvin, of course, started the Calvinists. John Standock drilled it into his students the importance of using the state to enforce the will of church leaders and both students adhered to those teachings, putting them into practice throughout Europe.

But one of his students rebelled against his teachings–Erasmus. And God used Erasmus to preserve his words which in turn helped preserve the true church that continued to thrive in spite of the Calvinists and the Jesuits of Rome.

The marriage of church & state left such bad memories in the minds of Europeans that when they established the United States of America, Americans wanted no part of a state church or a government that dictates what Christians can or cannot do regarding religious matters or what Christians can or cannot say. This is the real root of the separation of church & state debate.


Dave Hunt. What Love is This?: Calvinism’s Misrepresentation of God. Sisters, OR: Loyal Publishing, Inc. 2002, p. 79.

William Haldane Porter. Erasmus: the Chancellor’s Essay.  Oxford, England: B. H. Blackwell. 1893, p. 6.

–posted by Harry A. Gaylord–


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