As the race for the 2012 party nominations for president heats up, the question of religion and its place in politics surfaces yet again.  Whether the controversy is over mosques or Mormonism, religion permeates much of today’s political talk, despite various pleas for a “separation of church and state” from both the secular and religious worlds.  But what does the separation of church and state truly mean?

While many use the phrase to refer to a complete isolation of religion from politics, history tells us that the most famous advocate of this principle in America, Thomas Jefferson, may have had a different idea of what a “wall of separation between church and state” really meant.  In his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson writes:

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. . . 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.

What Jefferson sought to prevent was state intervention into religious affairs. And the separation of church and state, as our founding fathers understood the phrase, meant the avoidance of a church-state.  A church that acts as or controls the state is not in accordance with Christ’s message, but a church that informs the state is.  If the role of the state is to allow for and to promote the freedom and well-being of its citizens, then it has only to benefit from the Christian understandings of truth, freedom and God’s undying love for the world.

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