What does “separation of Church and State” actually mean?

August 29, 2019

“Separation of Church and State” is one of the most misunderstood phrases is modern political discourse. Yet, it is also a phrase with deep roots in Baptist tradition and one that we, as Christians, should have a healthy understanding of as we seek to engage in the public sphere.

Origins of “Separation of Church and State”

The phrase “separation of Church and State” originates in a letter that our third president, Thomas Jefferson, wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut in 1802. Understanding the background of this letter is key to understanding the meaning of this infamous phrase.

Despite fleeing to the New World to escape religious persecution in Europe and seek religious liberty, many of the settlers of the early colonies did not extend religious freedom to minority religions. During the 17th and 18th centuries, it wasn’t uncommon for local governments to levy taxes on citizens to support local clergy. In a society where there were many people of various religious persuasions (mostly Protestant denominations), the question then became, “Whose clergy will be funded through taxation?” In the Congregationalist-dominated Northeast, it was usually a Congregationalist minister. In other parts of the country, the Church of England held sway. Thus, minority denominations such as Baptists and Quakers were left being forced to pay taxes to support religious beliefs that they disagreed with. Many who refused had their property confiscated or were beaten, hanged, or jailed.

Fast-forward to 1801, after the formation of the United States government and the ratification of our Constitution and the First Amendment. Thomas Jefferson had won the election of 1800. The Danbury Baptist Association was worried that the Constitution did not go far enough in protecting religious minorities from the overreaches of government. They wrote a letter to Jefferson, urging that the same mistakes of the past not be made, 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.”

Jefferson wrote in 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.” 

Jefferson, quoting the First Amendment to the Constitution, sought to reassure the Danbury Baptists that what was written was sufficient to protect their rights and that he was a friend to their cause. 

Thus, it’s fair to say that Founders like Jefferson meant for some kind of separation between church and state to be present. The government could not establish a state-sponsored religion, but neither could it prohibit others from freely practicing their own religion. However, it’s also fair to say that opponents of religion in the 20th and 21st centuries have misused this phrase to try and separate religion from the public sphere far beyond what was originally intended.

What does the Bible say?

Scripture also supports the principle of separation of church and state (properly understood). It was these principles which informed early Baptist leaders such as John Leland and Isaac Backus and eventually lead to the passage of the First Amendment.

First, separation of church and state means that, at an institutional level, church and government are separate entities. Jesus spoke about this in Matthew 22:21 when he said, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's,” thus making a clear delineation between the “things that are Caesar’s” (the government’s) and the “things that are God’s.” Likewise, Jesus spoke of his Kingdom not being of this world (John 18:36) while simultaneously acknowledging through Paul that earthly government is established by God for our good. (Rom. 13:1-7). Jesus remains sovereign over both institutions (Matt. 28:18) until such time that he returns to rule and reign in the eschaton (Rev. 11:15). In the meantime, he gives both church and government differing tasks.

The key difference we see between the function of the church and the state comes through the use of the power of the sword. God has given government the power of the sword to punish the wrongdoer in civil matters (Rom. 13:4). The church does not have such authority (Matt. 26:51-56). On the other hand, the church can exercise church discipline in judging matters of doctrine and heresy but not the state (1 Cor. 5:1-13). Thus, there exists a healthy separation of church and state, both institutionally and functionally. This is crucial to the mission of the church, which is the preaching of the gospel. We cannot bring about conversion through the power of the sword vested in the state. Only through the power of God’s Spirit can someone be brought unto saving faith in Jesus Christ. “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.” (2 Cor. 10:3-4)

Practically, this works out much as it is articulated in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. No religious institution is privileged above another, neither is religion privileged above nonreligion. Similarly, the government does not prohibit the free exercise of someone’s faith.

What it doesn’t mean

Though we see that separation of church and state is a valid concept, our modern secular society has come to incorrectly understand this phrase to mean either a separation of morality from lawmaking or a separation of religiously informed opinion from the lawmaker. Both of these are mistaken.

As people of faith, let us seek to engage the public square in a way which is winsome and accords with God’s Word, being mindful of the boundaries which God has established between church and state.

First, separation of church and state does not mean a separation of moral reasoning from public policy. Such a goal would be futile. The process of lawmaking is moral by its very nature. A law is instituted because of an ought. This ought to be done because of such and such, or this ought not to be done. The government’s use of coercion would lack any justification without a moral foundation behind the laws which it enforces.

Second, separation of church and state does not mean a separation of religiously informed moral reasoning from public policy. It’s often said that religious people who run for office need to check their religion at the door before they make policy. Historically, this would have made no sense to our Founders, most of whom were religious. Philosophically, this also faces issues. Whether secular or religious, everyone brings moral presuppositions to the table. Religious people should not be told to check their beliefs at the door simply because they are religiously based. This smacks of an arrogance which most would not want to be accused of. Everyone, whether religious or secular, should have the freedom to publicly or privately make the case for laws which they believe should be passed.

As Christians, we understand that government ought to be secular in the sense that it does not favor one religion over another. Nor should it favor religion above nonreligion (or vice versa). Yet, a government that seeks to use secular moral reasoning alone will soon find itself adrift amid the sea of ever-changing public opinion. A transcendent moral law is needed which can ground the human and political rights that we cherish today. This is, ultimately, the reason why we allow our political conscience to be properly informed by our faith.

Separation of church and state, properly understood, is a foundational principle which secures the rights and privileges of all citizens under a government and ensures that both government and church function according to their God-given roles. As people of faith, let us seek to engage the public square in a way which is winsome and accords with God’s Word, being mindful of the boundaries which God has established between church and state.

Neal Hardin

Neal Hardin grew up in Murrieta, CA before getting his BS in Metallurgical Engineering from the University of Utah in 2012. Following that, he worked as an engineer for 4 years at a steel mill before the Lord called him to pursue a seminary education in 2016. Neal is currently a … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24