American ‘Separation of Church and State’ – or is it?

Steve’s Free Church Blog

Bit of a gap since my last post; all sorts of reasons including a bit of a dearth of web access opportunities since mid-December.  I now have much better access via a ‘dongle’ so as soon as I can wean myself off the excellent but addictive ‘Ship of Fools’ Christian forums….

In another forum where I chat about Christian matters, my advocacy of an Anabaptist approach was challenged by one guy who pointed out that America has ‘separation of Church and State’ and is still all gung-ho patriotic etc. and arguably a more ‘Christian’ state than many with established churches; how, he asked, did that square with my opposition to ‘Constantinianism’?  What follows is a lightly edited version of my response to that,

American ‘separation of Church and state’ – hmmm!  American Anabaptists would tell you that the American version of that separation is not much like the Anabaptist version, though it does have the merit of allowing Anabaptists to exist (mostly) un-persecuted.  As I understand it what happened is something like this….

The original English colonies in America were supposed to be Anglican like England itself; however because the distance across the Atlantic made enforcement harder, many non-conformists and Puritans sought refuge in the New World – the classic example being the Pilgrim Fathers, who by the way didn’t exactly allow religious freedom in their own colony.  Quakers as is well known founded Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island was a Baptist foundation.  After 1688 I assume that the English colonies also benefited from the Act of Toleration, so the colonies of the War of Independence were a considerable mix but mostly Protestant.  Whitfield I understand preached and ‘fellowshipped’ with Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists as well as Anglicans, and towards the end of Wesley’s life American Methodism (and the English version in consequence) formally split from Anglicanism after Anglican indolence led Wesley to ordain clergy (bishops?) to look after the growing Methodist flock.

In the War of Independence the former colonies chose obviously to reject Anglicanism, and instead of adopting a particular alternative establishment opted for a constitutional rule of no establishment of religion.  While some of the leaders seem to have favoured Deism or Unitarianism, this was generally interpreted that the USA would be a Christian land, just that no particular version of Christianity would be privileged over others.  (I’m letting this stand as I originally wrote it, but on the forum it was challenged, with a suggestion that the Founding Fathers really intended full religious liberty – but also an admission that this may have been subverted in practice along the lines I suggested)  As the growing USA absorbed the former colonies of other European countries, French and Spanish, Catholics were also included, and the general freedom allowed oddities and nonChristian groups also to exist so long as they didn’t cause too much trouble/scandal.

However – you still see the basic ‘Christian state’ assumption in many things.  For example, in the 1800s Native American children were forcibly taken from their parents and sent to emphatically Christian schools, while Mormons were forced West to Utah and when ‘The Frontier’ caught up with them there was a war which forced them to abandon their polygamy.  The 1920s saw the infamous Daytona ‘Monkey Trial’ over evolutionary teaching (doubly scandalous now it has been revealed to have been pretty much a set-up for the benefit of the local tourist industry!), but atheists were also generally unpopular – see for example Cecil B de Mille’s horribly sentimental late silent film ‘The Godless Girl’.  With Communism emphatically atheist, that distaste continued in the Cold War era.  Catholics remained objects of suspicion even as late as the JFK election in the 1960s.  The USA motto ‘In God we trust’ is a very late apparition, though I don’t have the exact date handy.  More recent shenanigans, e.g., under Bush, have been all over the press in recent years so I’ll not go into details.

In other words, not the Anabaptist version of separation of Church and State; more like a practical compromise between assorted ‘Constantinianisms’ which had realised that in the New World they couldn’t impose their particular version.  Anabaptists across the pond tend to refer to this as ‘Neo-Constantinian’ – the same problem in a slightly different form.  I doubt the ‘Founding Fathers’ of the USA even realised, let alone intended, the use their wording would sometimes be put to in the late 20th Century by nonChristian forces.  (the ‘no establishment of religion’ wording has been used in the 20th Century to, among other things, exclude religious instruction from schools and even prevent students setting up ‘Christian clubs’ in schools; I’m not sure of the current state of play on these issues, but I still see occasional references to it)  The Northern Ireland version is somewhat similar to the USA – a collection of Constantinians willing to sink their differences and forego a fully established position for their own denominations to keep NI a broadly Protestant province.  (This sentence is there because in the original forum I was mainly contributing to a discussion of Northern Ireland)

I was going to add a summary of the Anabaptist version of things, but as this is going on the blog, I’ll just refer you to the rest of the blog….


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