The American Colonies
As North America was settled, its colonies were generally not much better. Most had established churches. Not seeing the contradiction between his vision for Massachusetts and the teachings of Christ, Puritan Governor John Winthrop considered the Massachusetts Bay colony to be a “city upon a hill”, watched by the world. It was to be a Puritan example to the rest of the world (especially England), a model of God’s kingdom on earth.
But there were exceptions to the church-state model. After being banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for disagreeing with some of the views of the Puritans, Roger Williams founded Providence in 1636. It later grew to become Rhode Island. From the very beginning, Williams established the colony as a “shelter for persons distressed for conscience,” that is, a place of religious freedom. Williams’ views were utterly revolutionary.
In 1681, Charles II granted a land charter to William Penn. Penn established a government for Pennsylvania that ensured freedom of religious conviction. Something new was happening on the face of the earth. The idea that the church and state did not have to be united was gaining popularity. Although some had always known it, the concept that the kingdom of God was something that worked in the hearts of God’s people and could not possibly be united with the kingdoms of this world was accepted by more people.
In 1775, the following colonies had established churches:
(*only New York City and three surrounding counties)
Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island did not have established churches.
The United States
The American Revolution was a rebellion against the God-ordained civil authorities for economic, not conscience, reasons. It was, thus, a violation of Romans 13. Nevertheless, God used it for His purposes.
Thomas Jefferson was a Deist and knew that his own religious freedoms were threatened by established churches. Supported by Baptists and other dissenters, in 1777, Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. It was enacted as state law in 1786. It stated in part “that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.” Interestingly, it also says, “And finally, that Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.”
This Virginia statute became a stepping stone to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The First Amendment was drafted by James Madison and there is good evidence that he did it largely at the instigation of Baptists who were concerned that the United States Constitution had no safeguard for religious liberty. Prominent among these Baptists was John Leland. Leland specifically stood against the idea that the United States should be a Christian nation, stating, “The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever…Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians” (A Chronicle of His Time in Virginia), and, “Every man must give account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that he can best reconcile to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free” (Right of Conscience Inalienable).
The First Amendment was adopted on December 15, 1791. It states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The first part of the amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” prevents the establishment of a national religion. I want to point out here that it does not just prevent the establishment of a national church. If the word “church” appeared instead of the word “religion,” then it could be argued that, while no particular denomination is favored, Christianity is the religion of the United States. But it does not say, “church.” It says, “religion.” This means that the First Amendment was purposely worded so as NOT to make the United States a Christian nation (or a Muslim nation, or a Jewish nation, or a Buddhist nation, or a Hindu nation, etc.).
It is important to understand that the First Amendment is not an act of toleration. It goes far beyond the acts of toleration that had been enacted in various parts of Europe. As John Leland pointed out, toleration still supposes the preeminence of one established religion that condescends to tolerate dissenters but can remove this toleration at any time. The First Amendment establishes no religion.
As Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802 to a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut, “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.”
Some reject Jefferson’s interpretation of a wall of separation, arguing that it was Madison, not Jefferson, who drafted the First Amendment. But Madison interpreted it similarly, writing of the “perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters” (1822 letter to Livingston), the “line of separation between the rights of religion and the civil authority… entire abstinence of the government” (1832 letter Rev. Adams), and the “practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government as essential to the purity of both, and as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States” (1811 letter to Baptist Churches).
Whereas the setting up of established churches had inevitably resulted in an unholy hybrid of church and state and the harrying of those who dissented, the American separation of church and state allows for Jesus’ non-worldly kingdom to flourish without fear of persecution. Whereas established churches were more hindrances than helps to people seeking the kingdom of God, the separation of church and state allows people to freely seek the truth.
Why Pilate’s Decision Is Important
The reason Pilate found no guilt in Jesus is that he saw that Jesus had no plans to establish a worldly kingdom. What even unconverted Pilate realized is critical to our understanding that the kingdom of God cannot be found in any state religion. The kingdom of God is not of this world and cannot be tied to any state.
Americans today need to learn this lesson. Millions of Americans have been deluded into believing that the United States was established as a Christian nation and needs to be returned to its Christian roots. They want to repeat the tragic mistake made by the Roman Empire and followed by the nations of Europe and once again unite church and state. They want to attempt to make the kingdom of God a nation of this world. By recklessly pushing to establish Christianity as the religion of the United States, they may fan the old flames of persecution, stifle the free pursuit of the truth, and hinder the spread of the Gospel and the furtherance of Jesus’ kingdom. They may succeed in making another nation of counterfeit Christianity. But they will never link the kingdom of God with the United States. The two cannot mix.
All of us need to see what Pilate accepted so long ago. It will keep us from making the blunder of trying to unite church and state. Jesus never intended to make any nation or nations of this world His kingdom. Instead, His kingdom consists of people of the truth, “delivered…out of the power of darkness, and translated…into the Kingdom of the Son of his love” (Colossians 1:13).
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellence of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
1 Peter 2:9
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