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The History of Church vs. State in the U.S.

(Illustration by Jennifer Hewitson / For The LA Times)

John M. Barry offers a little historical perspective on the origins of the church/state relation debate. Not too surprisingly, the debate about the relationship between church and government in the US dates back to the earliest colonies. Barry looks specifically at the Massachusetts Bay Colony and more specifically the thoughts of Roger Williams. Here is a taste. (HT: John Fea)

The church-state conflict began when Puritans, envisioning a Christian nation, founded what John Winthrop called “a citty upon a hill” in Massachusetts, and Williams rejected that vision for another: freedom. He insisted that the state refrain from intervening in the relationship between humans and God, stating that even people advocating “the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or Antichristian consciences and worships” be allowed to pray — or not pray — freely, and that “forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.”

Yet Williams was no atheist. He was a devout Puritan minister who, like other Massachusetts Puritans, fled religious persecution in England. Upon his arrival in 1631 he was considered so godly that Boston Puritans had asked him to lead their church. He declined — because he considered their church insufficiently pure.

Reverence for both Scripture and freedom led Williams to his position. His mentor was Edward Coke, the great English jurist who ruled, “The house of every one is as his castle,” extending the liberties of great lords — and an inviolate refuge where one was free — to the lowest English commoners. Coke pioneered the use of habeas corpus to prevent arbitrary imprisonment. And when Chancellor of England Thomas Egerton said, “Rex est lex loquens; the king is the law speaking,” and agreed that the monarch could “suspend any particular law” for “reason of state,” Coke decreed instead that the law bound the king. Coke was imprisoned — without charge — for his view of liberty, but that same view ran in Williams’ veins.

Equally important to Williams was Scripture. Going beyond the “render unto Caesar” verse in the New Testament, he recognized the difficulty in reconciling contradictory scriptural passages as well as different Bible translations. He even had before him an example of a new translation that served a political purpose. King James had disliked the existing English Bible because in his view it insufficiently taught obedience to authority; the King James Bible would correct that.

Given these complexities, Williams judged it impossible for any human to interpret all Scripture without error. Therefore he considered it “monstrous” for one person to impose any religious belief on another. He also realized that any government-sponsored prayer required a public official to pass judgment on something to do with God, a sacrilegious presumption. He also knew that when one mixes religion and politics, one gets politics. So to protect the purity of the church, he demanded — 150 years before Jefferson — a “wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”

Interesting side note in there about the history of the King James Bible. Funny that it is often seen as the epitome of the unbiased standard against which new version are compared for any attempt to change the language, while it is a biased translation to begin with!

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