Perhaps it’s fitting that in the same week we officially start the 2020 presidential election campaign we also commemorate a priest and civic leader who helped shaped a vision of the proper relationship between church and state.
Born in 1603, Roger Williams was an ordained priest in the Church of England who opposed the autocratic high church-policies of Archbishop William Laud. Yet when he came to Boston in search of greater religious freedom, he found that that civic and religious power was dangerously intermingled, and that local officials were even empowered to punish religious offenses. So, he set out once again, this time founding a settlement called Providence Plantations and eventually gaining a charter for the new colony of Rhode Island, whose constitution would grant wide latitude for religious practice.
Williams envisioned a “wall of separation between religious and civic powers,” laying the groundwork for this precious gift that we call the separation of church and state. Williams reminds us that when we blur the line between state and religion, we tend to get the worst of both. Religion and piety will inevitably become compromised by worldly power; and when the emperor becomes a god, all accountability, indeed all true freedom, is lost.
The Iowa caucuses for 2020 are now, sort of, behind us (at least the voting part). We’ve begun a process that will consume our energy for months and shape our country for years to come. What does that mean for us as people of faith? I believe that separation of church and state is good for the country and for human freedom as well…but it’s also good for the witness of the church. It’s a vital discipline that allows us to speak faithfully and prophetically while honoring that true freedom comes not from the next exciting politician or by joining in the chant of the crowd, but from placing all our hope upon God. Williams knew what he was doing when he named his capital city Providence.
But “a wall of separation between civic and religious powers” doesn’t mean that we simply compartmentalize the two, or that that we abandon the moral witness that is essential to who we are. Separating religious and civil power is not the same thing as saying that faith has no voice in public life.
It’s foolish to declare that faith and public life have no relationship with one another; rather, our call is to discern what that relationship is and how that relationship can be redemptive rather than harmful. That means having a right relationship with power: who holds it, who keeps it if we stay silent and what all this means for our coming to maturity in Christ.
Roger Williams gave us the “wall of separation” between civic and religious authorities because he had seen how enmeshing the two brought out the worst in both. Jesus gives us a hope for something more: by being in right relationship with our neighbor, by learning about our power and privilege and by working to create a community where the dignity of all people is honored, we begin to claim the human freedom that is God’s intended gift for us.